I Scream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream! Unfortunately, some cold treats make us scream for another reason: brain freeze. Also known as "ice cream headaches,"brain freeze is a painful— though harmless— sensation in the front or sides of the head occurring a few seconds after the rapid ingestion of cold foods or drinks Ice cream headache—site, duration, and relationship to migraine. Bird, N., MacGregor EA, Wilkinson, MI. City of London Migraine Clinic, England. Headache, 1992 Jan; 32(1):35-8..

Ice Cream Horror — What It Is

Ice Cream

Although the pain associated with brain freeze may be excruciating, it’s usually brief, generally lasting only 10-20 seconds. Studies suggest when something cold comes into contact with the palate (particularly the back, topmost part of the mouth) it causes a sudden constriction of blood vessels Idiopathic stabbing headache and experimental ice cream headache (short-lived headaches).. Selekler HM, Budak F. Department of Neurology, Faculty of Medicine, Kocaeli University, Kocaeli, Turkey. European Neurology, 2004;51 (1):6-9.. Because of the rapid change in temperature, pain receptors around these vessels trigger nerves carrying information from the face to the brain Idiopathic stabbing headache and experimental ice cream headache (short-lived headaches). Selekler HM, Budak F. Department of Neurology, Faculty of Medicine, Kocaeli University, Kocaeli, Turkey. European Neurology, 2004;51 (1):6-9.. The stimulated nerves normally sense facial pain, signaling the brain to interpret the feeling as coming from the forehead instead of the mouth, hence the headache-like sensation Idiopathic stabbing headache and experimental ice cream headache (short-lived headaches).. Selekler HM, Budak F. Department of Neurology, Faculty of Medicine, Kocaeli University, Kocaeli, Turkey. European Neurology, 2004;51 (1):6-9.. Ouch!

While research indicates perhaps only a third of people experience brain freeze, there’s some disagreement whether it occurs more often in those with a history of migraines. Some studies suggest migraine sufferers may be more prone to the cold-induced cringe, while other data indicates brain freeze doesn’t discriminate Ice cream headache—site, duration, and relationship to migraine. Bird, N., MacGregor EA, Wilkinson, MI. City of London Migraine Clinic, England. Headache, 1992 Jan; 32(1):35-8. Ice-cream headache--a large survey of 8359 adolescents. Fuh JL, Wang SJ, Lu SR, et al. Neurological Institute, Taipei Veterans General Hospital, National Yang-Ming University School of Medicine, Taipei, Taiwan. Cephalalgia. 2007 Mar 27 (3):286.. Regardless of age, sex, season, or flavor preference, consuming icy foods— especially consuming them fast— carries some risk of that unpleasant, mind-numbing tinge.

Thaw It Out — The Answer/Debate

Despite the ominous name, brain freeze is as harmless as the waffle cones it’s commonly served in. The headaches don't affect blood flow to the brain and don’t actually freeze anything (besides the ability to take another bite) Ice cream headache—site, duration, and relationship to migraine. Bird, N., MacGregor EA, Wilkinson, MI. City of London Migraine Clinic, England. Headache, 1992 Jan; 32(1):35-8. Idiopathic stabbing headache and experimental ice cream headache (short-lived headaches).. Selekler HM, Budak F. Department of Neurology, Faculty of Medicine, Kocaeli University, Kocaeli, Turkey. European Neurology, 2004;51 (1):6-9..

But steps can be taken to avoid brain freeze, or at least limit the duration of pain. Eating cold treats slowly causes a more gradual temperature change in the mouth, reducing the risk of triggering a painful nerve reaction. If feeling extra cautious, avoid putting cold foods in contact with the roof of the mouth altogether, at least until they melt a bit.

Already in the throes of a full-on freeze? Try putting the tongue to the roof of the mouth or drinking something warm to help restore nerves to their normal temperature. Of course, the ultimate prevention might be to avoid those chilly favorites altogether. But what kind of fun is that?

Originally posted June 2011. Updated May 2012.

How do you get over a brain freeze? Will it stop you from scarfing cold treats this summer? Let us know in the comments!

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