Know Your Pain

Ice cream headache or brain freeze

So you are out enjoying a warm summer afternoon and you dig your nose into a sumptuous cone of ice cream. Before you know you are left dazed by a something like a bee sting on the forehead. What was that?! Relax, it's only a harmless little ice cream headache or a 'brain freeze'.

When a gush of cold foodstuff touches the roof of the mouth, it causes the ubiquitous ice cream headache. It's more common than you thought; as much as one in every three people regularly experience it, especially in warmer climates.

The scientific name of ice cream headache is sphenopalatine ganglioneuralgia. An understandable variant of the name is 'Headache attributed to ingestion or inhalation of a cold stimulus.' When anything cold touches the top palate of the mouth or the throat, blood vessels constrict rapidly. The trigeminal nerve, which is responsible for relaying information from the face, teeth and tongue to the brain, immediately signals the brain to reopen the blood vessels. A deluge of this activity causes fluid to build up in tissues, which you see in the form of a little swelling in the forehead. The fluid does not drain out for 30 - 60 seconds and that's why you experience the pain for that much duration.

The pain is usually in the mid-frontal region, but can be unilateral in the temporal, frontal or retro-orbital region. It peaks in about 30 seconds after ingestion of the cold foodstuff and subsides within a minute. Headaches lasting for more than two minutes are very rare. Sometimes it comes accompanied with a toothache.

So what can you do to treat ice cream headache? Since it goes away on its own within a minute or two, you don't need to do anything to treat it. You can surely try and avoid it by going slow on your ice cream or cold beverage. Most of these headaches occur when you gorge on big bites of the cold stuff. You will find it much easier by eating smaller bites or drinking smaller gulps. By no means do you need to give up eating ice cream. Use your tongue to warm it up before you gulp it.

But if the pain is too much to bear, you may try a couple of things like pressing your thumb against the roof of your mouth, or holding your head down below the level of your heart. They might help speed up the recovery process by a few seconds.

Ice cream headache is an example of referred pain, which is localized to an area separate from the site of the painful stimulation. Anybody could be affected by it, although people with migraine seem to get it the most. But it is not at all serious and you probably forget about it as quickly as little children who know a lot about it.