The Science Behind Brain Freeze (And How You Might Stop It) | Serving Up Science

Jul 31, 2019

In the summertime, there’s really no better way to cool off than with a nice big ice cream cone.

Imagine a time when you’ve taken a bite out of your cone when suddenly, you feel a strange sensation in your head. The sensation commonly known as brain freeze.

Why does brain freeze happen? And what’s going on in our bodies as we experience the feeling?

To put it simply, brain freeze (or as doctors term it, a "cold-stimulus headache") is a quick onset of head pain which peaks within 30 to 60 seconds of cold exposure from activities like eating ice cream. It can cause an intense stabbing or throbbing pain around the temples or forehead, but usually ends quickly - from a few seconds or minutes. 

Sheril and Karel took a trip to the MSU Dairy Store, in the name of science.
Credit Scott Pohl / WKAR-MSU

 

The truth is, scientists aren’t exactly sure why it happens. What we do know is that the main trigger is, no surprise, exposure to a very cold temperature. This is often from eating something cold but can even happen when diving into an icy lake in the winter.

What’s happening is that when very cold food or air or even water hits the roof of your mouth or the back of the throat, blood vessels and nerves in these temperature-sensitive areas of our bodies are stimulated. Then, a sudden increase in blood flow results in an increase in size of the anterior cerebral artery. That’s a blood vessel located in the middle of the brain behind the eyes. 

Scientists think this might be the reason we experience the sensation of brain freeze. But they’re still not exactly sure. 

Although, the brain freeze experience also seems to end when the artery constricts and reduces blood flow, which coincidentally seems to cause the associated pain to disappear. 

Scientists think that increased blood flow to the head leads to pressure within the skull leading to that brief uncomfortable sensation.

A different theory suggests that the cold temperature activates the trigeminal nerve in the head, causing blood vessels to momentarily tighten and constrict before rapidly dilating.

The trigeminal nerve, in yellow, may be responsible for the sensation of brain freeze.
Credit Henry Gray / Public Domain

People who have migraines seem to be more prone to the experience, which may be because their trigeminal nerves are more sensitive and can be activated more easily.

Besides giving up ice cream, how can you minimize the risk? The best advice, according to science, is to eat slowly. Which also, conveniently, give us more time to enjoy a cone or cup. When you feel the sensation coming on, you can also try pressing the underside of your tongue to the roof of your mouth, which warms up those sensitive nerves and could put the breaks a full blown brain freeze before it intensifies.