As we endure the summer swelter, cold snacks and drinks are par for the course. With those wonderful choices lurks an experience nobody finds a stranger, the crippling pain best known as brain-freeze or ice-cream headaches. This brief but terrible occurrence has a fascinating medical explanation that few are even aware of. It begins where all great things begin, the mouth.
By Paul K. DiCostanzo Managing Editor
So exactly what happens when you take Häagen-Dazs too far, too fast? The roof of the mouth is the origin of the problem. Once a person hits that area with cold food or drink quickly and repeatedly, there is no going back. The nerves found at the top of the mouth respond by causing blood vessels in the area to swiftly and harshly constrict, creating the foundation of that familiar pain. Though why do people not feel the pain in the mouth itself? Medical science has an answer for that too, it’s called referred pain.
When an individual has trauma somewhere on their body but they feel the pain associated with it elsewhere, it is known as referred pain. While there is currently no consensus on a definitive definition for referred pain, the concept is fairly well understood. For example, a person who has severe injury to their abdominal muscles can experience that pain in the lumbar region of their back. This is possible because of how the nerves associated with both areas in question wrap around that portion of the torso. Thereby connecting both locations in a biological fait accompli. This is also believed to be the case with ice-cream headaches.
The pain from the rapid blood vessel constriction is sensed by a nerve that detects pain in the face, the Trigeminal nerve. The Trigeminal nerve in turn innervates the nerve cell cluster Sphenopalatine ganglion, responsible for relating sinus sensations in the brain. Once this incredible nervous system relay race is completed, a person is subjected to intense pain in the skull. So even though the scene of the crime is in the mouth, it is your cranium that suffers after going to town on your freezer.
Will knowing this help prevent ice-cream headaches/brain freeze in the future? Nope. Though you will have the satisfaction of knowing why your world has suddenly come to a crashing halt after cramming a waffle cone down your pie hole.
Sources: Wikipedia, New England Journal of Medicine, The Independent.