It’s a long, hot summer’s day and you’re looking forward to an ice cream. But within seconds of your first bite, you feel a headache coming on: a brain freeze. What’s going on?
Your brain isn’t literally freezing, or even sensing cold. It can’t sense cold or pain because it lacks its own internal sensory receptors. In fact, surgeons usually perform brain surgery on conscious, sedated patients with the only pain coming from the scalp, skull and underlying tissues, not from the brain itself.
An international team of neurologists classifies brain freeze or ice cream headache as a:
headache attributed to ingestion or inhalation of a cold stimulus.
Anything cold (solid, liquid or gas) that passes over the roof of the mouth (the hard palate) and/or the back of the throat (posterior pharyngeal wall) can trigger a brain freeze headache.
Pain can be to the front of the head or the temples and while short lasting, can be intense, though not debilitating. People who have these headaches usually do not seek treatment, so there has been very little research into how brain freeze occurs.
The transient nature of these headaches means common “treatments”, like putting your tongue on the roof of your mouth, are unlikely to have any major effect.
People most likely to have brain freeze also tend to suffer from migraines, suggesting a common underlying mechanism for both.
One study compared how common brain freeze was in people with migraine alongside those with tension type headaches. When an ice cube was placed on the hard palate of their mouths for 90 seconds, 74% of migraine sufferers reported pain along their temples versus 32% of those with a history of primary headache disorders (headaches that do not have an underlying or identifiable cause).
Only 12% of volunteers without a history of primary headache disorder experienced brain freeze headache with the same stimulus. These observations are robust and have been replicated.