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Why Do We Get Ice-Cream Headaches?

In the heat of summer, its easy to be stricken with ice-cream headaches by scarfing down a frozen treat. Why does this awful sensation occur?



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. It begins where all great things begin, the mouth.

So exactly what happens when you take Häagen-Dazs too far, too fast? The roof of the mouth is the origin of the problem.

Ice-Cream Brain Freeze: The Internal Story

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.

Referred Pain and It’s Role Creating Brain Freeze Headaches

Referred Pain and it’s unique role in brain freeze WikiCommons

Body parts and areas of the body where their pain can manifest.

Referred Pain is when an individual has trauma somewhere on their body, but they feel the pain associated with it elsewhere.

While there is currently no consensus on a 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 Trigeminal Nerve

Trigeminal Nerve - the major ice-cream headache culprit WikiCommons

The Trigeminal Nerve in yellow.

The trigeminal nerve is the pain from the rapid blood vessel constriction is sensed by the nerve that detects pain in the face.

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.

Sphenopalatine ganglionWikiCommons

A cross section view of the areas connected with the Sphenopalatine ganglion.

The Price of Knowledge

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.

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Paul K. DiCostanzo is the Managing Editor for TGNR. He is a noted public speaker, an emerging historian of the Second World War, a vocal advocate for Crohn’s Disease/Ulcerative Colitis, and highly regarded interviewer. Paul K. DiCostanzo is Co-Host for the A.D. History Podcast. The A.D. History Podcast explores world history of the last 2000 years in an unprecedented fashion; with each episode covering a 10 year period beginning in 1AD, until reaching the present day. Ultimately finding the forgotten, as well as overlooked threads of history, and weaving a tapestry of true world history. Paul is author of the reader submitted Q&A column: WW2 Brain Bucket. The Brain Bucket answers readers submitted questions on all things regarding the Second World War. Paul has served as Managing Editor for TGNR since March 2015. Prior to TGNR, Paul has a background in American National Security and American Foreign Policy.