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What Causes Brain Freeze?

An illustration of a human brain, including the blood vessels.
The temporary freezing of nerves behind the hard palate is considered part of the cause of brain freeze.
Shrinking blood vessels cause the brief but intense pain of a brain freeze.
Roughly 1/3 of the population is said to be susceptible to brain freezes.
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  • Written By: Michael Pollick
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 20 July 2014
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One minute you're enjoying your favorite frozen beverage or ice cream cone, and the next minute you're experiencing an excruciating headache which seems to originate from the middle of your skull. This is the dreaded phenomenon known as brain freeze, or ice cream headache. Some experts suggest that up to 1/3 of the population is susceptible to this condition, especially when eating a frozen treat too quickly on a warm day. The pain is similar to that of a migraine headache, but thankfully most attacks last 30 seconds or less.

So what actually causes brain freeze? Researchers suggest it is a combination of your body's overreaction to cold stimuli, freezing of a cluster of nerves above the palate and a sudden influx of warm blood to the brain. Eating all of that ice cream or slushy drink too quickly didn't help matters, either. In fact, it was the initial contact between the cold food and the roof of your mouth which set all of this activity in motion.

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When you took an extra large bite of ice cream, some of it reached the roof of your mouth, also known as the hard palate. Behind this hard palate lies a cluster of nerves which act as a protective thermostat of sorts for your brain. The main nerve is called the sphenopalatine nerve, and it's extremely sensitive to abrupt changes in temperature. Once the ice cream or other frozen food causes the sphenopalatine nerve to cool down, it sends out a warning to the other nerves in the cluster. Essentially, your brain has now been told to expect a major freeze, so it had better prepare itself.

Your brain doesn't actually freeze during the episode, but the sphenopalatine nerve cluster didn't know that at the time. The blood vessels surrounding the brain suddenly shrink as a reaction to the cold stimuli, or more precisely overreact. The result for you is a pounding headache which seems to radiate from the sinus area or behind your eyes. The pain is not necessarily triggered by the dilation of the blood vessels, but by the influx of warm blood which forces the vessels open again.

While all of these blood vessels are busy shrinking and reopening with warm blood, the nerves are also contributing to the pain. The pain receptors near the sphenopalatine nerve cluster sense the freezing of the palate, but the pain itself is referred to another area deeper in the skull. This is why you feel brain freeze deep inside your head and not in the roof of your mouth.

One of the quickest ways to reduce the duration of brain freeze is to place your tongue on the roof of your mouth to warm the palate. Once the palate becomes warm again, the nerve clusters are no longer stimulated and they will call off the warning. Drinking sips of warm water will also minimize the effects of brain freeze, as will eating frozen foods slowly and avoiding contact with the roof of your mouth.

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Discuss this Article

anon336812
Post 23

I never got a brain freeze in 40 years until after I had brain surgery. Now I get them every time there is a rapid temperature change or if it's cold and I don't have to be eating anything. Keeping my tongue against the roof of my mouth does not work. Neither does drinking something warm. The brain freeze is severe and usually lasts about 15 minutes. Sometimes my vision is impaired, like being on acid or looking through a kaleidoscope.

It was scary at first. Now I know I can't go out in the cold or near an air conditioner without a scarf around my nose. It's really awful and it's getting worse. When I told my neuro-surgeon, he said, "Well, your brain is different now." Thanks a lot, doc.

anon263363
Post 22

I've never ever gotten brain freeze, but I do get a throat freeze though. I wonder why.

anon258667
Post 21

My daughter does not get brain freezes from eating anything cold; she can suck back a slurpie like there is no tomorrow. My question is why she doesn't get them? I don't know of anyone else who doesn't get them.

anon212237
Post 20

I totally get chest freezes too. It's such an intense pain, but I love knowing it'll pass.

karo49
Post 19

I've been getting brain freeze since I was a kid and as I've aged it's gotten more intense. I don't know what causes it, but it hurts! It starts in the middle of my head and moves down between my shoulder blades. A friend said she sprinkles pepper on the frozen item as she's eating or drinking. Sounds ridiculous, but it works and it doesn't taste bad!

anon176843
Post 18

okay you guys don't know what you talking about. first the brain freeze only comes after you have passed the cold object by your soft palate. that is why when you hold ice cubes to the roof of your mouth (for some stupid reason) you dont get a brain freeze.

anon158244
Post 17

I, too, have terrific sinus and back pain associated with cold beverage drinking. The mid-back pain is so severe that it almost brings me to my knees and most definitely brings tears to my eyes. Knowledge of others having this affliction relieves some of my anxiety as my peers do not experience this.

For obvious reasons, I don't drink frozen drinks. However, there have been occasions when I drink a moderately chilled beverage and still am affected.

Putting my tongue to the roof of my mouth does absolutely nothing. A drink of warm water following the attack does not give immediate relief either.

My veins and vessels are very close to the skin surface. I bruise easily and have varicose legs. (I know, sounds attractive huh? LOL) So, I associate my vascular state with this cold drink trauma. Thank you for your posts.

Thanks for the blog.

anon134086
Post 16

I get brain freeze almost anytime I eat ice cream, water ice or extremely cold drinks. besides the headache pain I also get pain half way down the middle of my back. Excruciating!

anon127268
Post 15

In science we cannot accept every finding as absolute. I have long disagreed with the popular notion that brain freeze is caused only by a sudden change in temperature on the roof of the mouth. This is based purely on anecdotal evidence, as I too experience brain freezes that start way down in the esophagus and then radiate into the brain.

Placing the tongue or any other warm object on the roof of my mouth does nothing. It is only when I swallow a mouthful of water that the pain subsides. In reading previous posts I see that many of you have similar, but not exact experiences.

As is the case with most physiological anomalies, everyone reacts differently to similar stimuli. I would suspect that in this case you would see a plethora of different reactions were you to truly utilize an experimental design to test this. Perhaps this would make good fodder for a senior or Master's level thesis.

anon108101
Post 14

I used to get only brain freezes but now i get chest freezes only with slurpys. the chest freezes started a few years ago. I thought i was gong to die the first time it happened. It was horrible. I seriously thought it might be some chemical in the slurpy. Somebody needs to investigate.

girlygirl69
Post 13

I get chest freeze not brain freeze. no one ever answers my question. it is always about brain freeze.

anon86115
Post 10

I have a slightly different theory why brain freeze happens.

For me, it only happens when I partially swallow something cold and the "food" does not clear my esophagus. My theory is that the blood that is pumped through the neck to the brain counter currently heat exchanges and send cold blood to the brain.

If I continue to leave the cold substance in my throat the headache persists. If I swallow hard to clear the pathway, it goes away. I can keep something cold in my mouth forever and not get a headache even if I rest it in the back part of my mouth. So I can only come to this conclusion.

anon82078
Post 9

i saw it for the first time and i am doing a research on brain freeze and it is awesome!

anon77899
Post 8

is it normal to never get a brain freeze because i have never had one, nor a migraine or a headache and i don't think that's normal. Is there something wrong with me? And I'm only 14.

webgal
Post 7

I have brain freezes occasionally, and I have an upper denture. It happens instantly, and the roof of my mouth could not feel the cold that fast. Also, most of the time it affects me right down the middle of my spine, so, it's more of a spine freeze. What's with that?

anon53940
Post 6

Three things. First, i get migraines all the time but never brain freeze.

Second, canon is right. blood vessels cause the freeze. Third, why don't some people get brain freeze?

pollick
Post 5

Some people are more prone genetically to migraine headaches than others. Some may eat or drink extremely cold foods in a way that doesn't trigger brain freeze as often. Applying a cold substance to other parts of the body could also trigger a painful sensation, but not necessarily a sense of brain freeze.

anon43766
Post 4

can it happen with anything other then the roof of your mouth like down your throat or anything? i can hold an ice cube on the roof of my mouth all day and never have any trouble but if i swallow a load of ice cream or something i'll have brain freeze.

anon43233
Post 3

why do some people get brain freeze and others do not? I have never had it but, my mother gets it all the time from having frozen things.

anon31032
Post 2

It's about time that an article with the correct information about brain freeze appears on the internet.

The majority of sites get the action backwards, stating that blood vessels dilate in reaction to cold and that the increased supply of blood is what causes the headache.

Anyone with knowledge of blood vessels knows that they constrict to cold and dilate to heat.

Good job.

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