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When Ice Cream Attacks: The Mystery of Brain Freeze

Filed by KOSU News in US News.
July 3, 2012

If it hasn’t happened to you, count yourself as lucky. For many people, eating ice cream or drinking an icy drink too fast can produce a really painful headache. It usually hits in the front of the brain, behind the forehead.

The technical name for this phenomenon is cold-stimulus headache, but people also refer to them as ice cream headache or brain freeze.

The good news is that brain freeze is easy to prevent — just eat more slowly. The other bit of good news is these headaches don’t last very long, a minute at the outside.

Jorge Serrador studies brain freeze headaches, not because he wants to make the world a safer place for ice cream eaters, but for what they can tell him about how and headaches occur. He’s hoping that will lead to better ways to treat or prevent them.

Serrador is associate director of research at the War Related Injury and Illness Study Center, which is part of the Veterans Administration in East Orange, N.J. He says many veterans suffer from headaches after their deployments.

It turns out it’s hard to study headaches, and a brain freeze headache is one of the few you can conjure up on demand.

Serrador says no one really knows yet what causes them. But there are some theories. For example, Serrador has shown that just before the brain freeze hits, there’s an increase in blood flow to the front of the brain

“That’s increasing the volume and therefore increasing the localized pressure in that area,” he says. The brain may be interpreting that increased pressure as pain.

“Another theory that’s been put out there is that the cold actually stimulates a nerve in the roof of the mouth,” says Serrador. That stimulated nerve in the mouth goes into overdrive. It sends off a barrage of signals to the brain that once again the brain interprets as “ouch.”

Although why the brain gets ouch from the cold, and not brrrrr, is a mystery.

Elizabeth Loder says it’s not all that surprising to think that scientists may learn something important from studying ice cream headaches. Loder is a headache researcher at Harvard Medical School, and also president of the American Headache Society.

“Some of these things that people think of silly or whimsical, they’re actually really fascinating,” she says.

Like the enduring mystery of why a sweet treat prompts pain. [Copyright 2012 National Public Radio]

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