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Thawing out the 'brain freeze' mystery

Why ice cream makes you scream
Why ice cream makes you scream
Microsoft photo

Your children are bouncing in excitement as you scoop up their favorite frozen treat into a bowl. Twenty seconds and eight spoonfuls later, they look at you in horror as if someone just dropped a brick on their head. Brain freeze. We’ve all felt that mind-numbing pain after sucking down something cold. What is it? Can you prevent it?

Why ice cream makes you scream
Believe it or not, this has actually been studied. Research published by Scientific American and the British Medical Journal report that brain freeze is the result of a drastic temperature change sensed by nerves in the roof of your mouth. The brain senses the rapid cooling and immediately constricts the blood vessels to preserve body heat. The pain results as the blood vessels rebound and swell with blood to warm back up.

Although the nerves sensing the pain are in the roof of the mouth, the pain receptors in this area send signals via the trigeminal nerve. The brain interprets these signals as coming from the forehead in a “referred pain” phenomenon. Migraine headaches cause a similar reaction in the facial vascular system.

Interestingly, this same kind of blood vessel response is the reason our faces look red and flushed when outside on a cold day. Although, that reaction is relatively painless.

The ache of brain freeze lasts from a few seconds to a few minutes and is not dangerous. It’s more commonly felt in summer months when the change in temperature is more drastic.

Can you stop it?
Brain freeze happens when you eat or drink cold things too quickly, particularly if you suck them up in a straw. To prevent it, eat slowly and keep the cold food in your mouth a little longer to let your nerves get used to the temperature change. Try not to let the cold food touch the top of your mouth until it has warmed on your tongue for a second.

To help stop the pain, put your tongue on the roof of your mouth. Some say rolling your tongue, so that the underside of it touches the roof of your mouth, is more effective. Another tip: cover your mouth and nose with your hands and breathe quickly to warm the inside of your mouth. Drinking something warm has also been shown to help.

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