What Causes Ice Cream Headaches

Daven Hiskey 5
ice creamToday I found out what causes ice cream headaches.

While many theories on what exactly causes ice cream headaches or “brain freezes” have existed for some time, it has only been very recently that it was discovered exactly what is going on here.  It turns out, ice cream headaches are a result of a rapid change in the size of blood vessels as a response to an extreme shift in temperature in the roof of the mouth, particularly the back of the roof of the mouth.

Specifically, what is happening here is that when you stick something extremely cold in your mouth and eat it quickly, such as drinking an ice cold beverage or eating ice cream rapidly, it rapidly cools the palate of your mouth.  Why this is significant is that there is a nerve center located just above the back of the roof of your mouth.  This nerve center includes nerve clusters that send signals to the brain about changes in body temperature.  When these nerve clusters are rapidly cooled by what you are consuming, they are over stimulated and send the message to the brain that the body just lost a severe amount of heat.  This ends up resulting in the rapid contraction of blood vessels in your head.

Shortly thereafter, the temperature at the palate of your mouth goes back to normal and the nerve centers signal everything is fine and the blood vessels end up rapidly dilating.  This all can happen in a matter of a few seconds, but the end result of this rapid contraction and dilation of blood vessels is an extreme, sharp pain, often in your temples, forehead, or sometimes even in your face itself.

This ends up creating a very similar pulsing sensation that many people experience when they get true migraine headaches.  Migraine headaches can even be induced by cold temperatures in some people, leading some researches to believe there is a close connection between what is happening during certain types of migraine headaches and what is happening during an ice-cream headache.

Bonus Facts:

  • The scientific name for an ice cream headache is “sphenopalatine ganglioneuralgia”.  This basically just means “nerve pain of the sphenopalatine ganglion”.
  • Not that most ice-cream headaches last very long, typically at most 10-30 seconds, but if you want to have an ice cream headache go away a little bit faster, most doctors suggest simply pressing your tongue against the roof of your mouth.  This will help heat up the palate a little faster than it would have otherwise, which will reduce the time needed for the ice cream headache to go away. Alternatively, you can just consume the cold item much slower to prevent the ice cream headache completely.  This gives the palate a chance to keep its temperature regulated enough that the nerve center above it doesn’t overreact to what it’s sensing.
  • As noted, most ice cream headaches only last 10-30 seconds.  However, there have been documented cases of ice cream headaches that lasted as many as five minutes.
  • While most people at one point or another in their lives has experienced an ice cream headache, these headaches are only somewhat common in about 1/3 of humans.
  • The oldest documented form of something resembling ice cream being served is from 200 BC in China.  Here they served a frozen mix of milk and rice.
  • Yet another early frozen treat reference was from Rome around the year 50 when the Emperor Nero would have ice crushed and mixed with fruit toppings.
  • The first actual ice cream references, in terms of something closely resembling modern day ice cream, comes from a recipe in an 18th century publication called Mrs. Mary Eales’s Receipts in London. This recipe was as follows:
    • To ice CREAM. Take Tin Ice-Pots, fill them with any Sort of Cream you like, either plain or sweeten’d, or Fruit in it;
    • shut your Pots very close;
    • to six Pots you must allow eighteen or twenty Pound of Ice, breaking the Ice very small;
    • there will be some great Pieces, which lay at the Bottom and Top.
    • You must have a Pail, and lay some Straw at the Bottom; then lay in your Ice, and put in amongst it a Pound of Bay-Salt; set in your Pots of Cream, and lay Ice and Salt between every Pot, that they may not touch; but the Ice must lie round them on every Side;
    • lay a good deal of Ice on the Top, cover the Pail
    • with Straw, set it in a Cellar where no Sun or Light comes, it will be froze in four Hours, but it may stand longer;
    • than take it out just as you use it; hold it in your Hand and it will slip out.
    • When you wou’d freeze any Sort of Fruit, either Cherries, Rasberries, Currants, or Strawberries, fill your Tin-Pots with the
    • Fruit, but as hollow as you can;
    • put to them Lemmonade, made with Spring-Water and Lemmon-Juice sweeten’d;
    • put enough in the Pots to make the Fruit hang together, and put them in Ice as you do Cream.
  • Due to the difficulty in making ice cream and storing it, ice cream tended to be a treat reserved only for very special occasions until very recently; it wasn’t until the mid-20th century that ice cream became a common popular treat.
  • One of the major developments in spurring the popularity of ice cream was the development of soft serve ice cream in the 20th century.  This method of making ice cream was developed by a team of chemists in Britain, whose membership included Margaret Thatcher.  They found a way to double the amount of air per unit volume in ice cream.  This, in turn, made the ice cream cheaper to make (less ingredients, more air), and made it possible to have a relatively simple machine make it to order from a spigot.
  • The idea of putting ice cream in edible cones dates all the way back to the 19th century.  However, this practice didn’t seem to become popular until the 1904 World’s Fair when fate intervened by having an ice cream vendor, who ran out of cardboard dishes used to hold ice cream, next door to a Syrian waffle maker.  One thing led to another and soon the two teamed up to sell ice cream in waffle cones.  Due to its popularity, this was quickly copied by other vendors and spread from there.
  • Americans consume on average about 4 gallons of ice cream per person per year, which is tops in the world.

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5 Comments »

  1. Siran September 26, 2012 at 11:04 pm - Reply

    You can cure brain freeze by folding your ears forward for a minute. No idea why but it works right away!

  2. spookiewon September 28, 2013 at 1:03 am - Reply

    I get pain in my chest not my head when I eat ice cream too fast, and also from drinking cold beverages too fast.

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