By Lauren Donley

    If you’re reading this issue of The Westsider, it means that summer has now come to an end. For those of us who enjoy basking in the sun – like a Stony Creek reptile – this will not come as welcome news. But perhaps we can all take comfort in the fact that as the heat starts to decline, so too will cases of sphenopalatine ganglioneuralgia.

    Hang on, supercalifragilistic… what?!

    More commonly known as an ‘ice-cream headache’ or ‘brain freeze’, most would be familiar with the symptoms. An intense but short-lived pain behind the forehead and temples, triggered by scoffing down something cold – like a delicious Slurpee on a warm summer day.

    Ever wondered what’s going on in your head when an ice-cream headache strikes? Well, here’s the scoop!

    Left out in the cold

    For starters, the science of headaches and migraines is quite poorly understood. Much of the research in this area is based on studies by Paul Ehrlich, a German immunologist who won the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1908. For reference, this is the same year that delivered us the Ford Model T motor car, and the first aeroplane flight to carry a passenger.

    Even less time and research funding has been invested into understanding the ice-cream headache, given that the pain usually passes quickly with no lasting effects. To be blunt, nobody really seems to care that much (except for you dear reader – please don’t give up just yet!).

    Still here? Ok good. Before getting to the cause of that sudden pain inside your skull, a quick anatomy lesson might be helpful.

    A smart mouth

    Inside your mouth is a dense network of blood vessels that supplies blood to the roof of your mouth and throat. Sitting behind this area is the internal carotid artery, a major blood vessel that carries blood and oxygen to your brain.

    When you tuck into something cold, the blood vessels in the roof of your mouth rapidly narrow. Also known as vasoconstriction, this is a survival reflex that occurs throughout your body to draw blood away from your skin and prevent heat loss in cold conditions.

    When this reflex occurs within your head, it temporarily reduces the amount of blood flowing to your brain. This may sound alarming, but fortunately your brain will continue to receive an adequate supply of blood from the other vessels in your head.

    Intertwined with these blood vessels are thousands of tiny nerve endings that relay pain and other sensations to your brain via the trigeminal nerve. An upper section of this nerve extends into your forehead, which is a common site of pain during an ice-cream headache.

    And now back to the ice-cream!

    Pain and the brain

    Scientists generally agree that an ice-cream headache is a feedback loop that essentially involves the following steps: 

    1) You eat something cold too quickly.
    2) Blood vessels and nerves in the roof of your mouth detect the cold.
    3) A pain response travels to your brain via the trigeminal nerve.
    4) A sudden headache makes you stop eating the cold thing.

    But circling back to the lack of research over the last century, scientists are less certain about what is happening between steps 2 and 3. Basically, the ‘how’ and ‘why’ of the pain response.

    One theory is that the pain response is triggered by the cold, or reduced blood flow to your brain – or a combination of both. In short, your mouth directly perceives cold as pain.

    Another theory is that the rapid narrowing of blood vessels in the roof of your mouth is followed by a rapid dilation to help increase blood flow to your brain – and this is what triggers the pain response. Or to channel Cold Play, the pain response is triggered by a rush of blood to the head.

    Tips and tricks (for after sips and licks)

    Now that we’ve got to the bottom of the science (and this column), there’s just one last practical item left to cover,  and that’s what you can you do about an ice-cream headache – without cutting out the ice-cream, of course.

    Firstly, it’s worth noting that ice-cream headaches tend to be more common in children, and in those who experience migraine headaches. In children, this is because they are more likely to eat quickly with little regard for the consequences. In the case of migraines though, once again, the science linking these two types of headache isn’t well understood.

    Secondly, the best way to avoid an ice-cream headache is to eat and drink cold things slowly, and to warm up them in your mouth before swallowing.

    And finally, if you do feel an ice-cream headache coming on, you can take (cold) comfort in the fact that it will most likely pass in less than 30 seconds. But to speed things along, your best option is to press your tongue or thumb against the roof or your mouth, or to take a sip of warm water… and turn that brain freeze into a brain thaw!

    Human Interest
    Human Interest
    Welcome to your regular column on the science of human beings…and being human. Brought to you by Lauren Donley, an unashamed science nerd who never misses an opportunity to share a story about bodily functions. Please note that this article is for general interest and is not a replacement for medical care. If you have any questions or concerns about your health, please contact your doctor.

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