What is a Brain Freeze? - Causes, Facts & Effect

Instructor: Sarah Friedl

Sarah has two Master's, one in Zoology and one in GIS, a Bachelor's in Biology, and has taught college level Physical Science and Biology.

Ouch! Brain freeze! If you've ever eaten ice cream too fast, you've definitely had this experience. But what is brain freeze? And can you do anything about it? Dive into this lesson to find out more about this unique type of headache.

Brain Freeze: So Good It Hurts

When I think of summer, one of the first things that comes to mind is ice cream - a nice big bowl of it! But when I think of ice cream, I also think about brain freeze. You know, that quick, painful headache you get when you eat something cold a little too fast? Believe it or not, there is a medical term for brain freeze: sphenopalatine ganglioneuralgia. It's pronounced ''sfee-no-PAL-uh-teen gang-lee-oh-nur-AHL-jee-uh,'' but appropriately, it's also called ''ice cream headache.'' The good news is that it'll probably take you longer to say that than it will for your brain freeze to go away.

Brain freeze is almost a rite of passage during the summer.
brain freeze

That's right! Brain freeze may come on quickly, but it tends to go away just as fast. Also, ice cream isn't the only cause of brain freeze. You can get it from just about any really cold food or beverage, like smoothies, piña coladas, and slushies from the local convenience store, but also from diving head first into a cold pool!

What Causes Brain Freeze?

The details of brain freeze are not completely understood. But luckily, because it is harmless and goes away so quickly, scientists can easily induce this type of headache in people to study it and its effects. They can't do that with other types of headaches.

Here's what they think causes your brain to ''freeze'' from a cold shock. When you eat or drink something cold too fast, your mouth doesn't have time to adjust. At the back of your throat is an important place where we find the internal carotid artery and the anterior cerebral artery, which are involved in supplying blood to the brain.

When a cold substance hits this area in your mouth, it causes these and blood vessels to constrict or close up, and then dilate or open up. Your brain interprets this as pain, though surprisingly not at the back of your throat as you might imagine. Instead, it senses it in a different place, in the meninges, the outer covering of your brain. This pain that is felt somewhere other than where it is occurring is called referred pain.

Dealing With Brain Freeze

So, what can you do to prevent brain freeze? It may sound like a no-brainer, but ''slow down'' when you're eating or drinking that super cold treat! You can also just avoid them in the first place, but that doesn't sound like much fun.

Drinking something warm during a brain freeze can help increase the temperature in your mouth.
a cup of tea

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