Dear Doctor: My eight-year-old grandson drank a slushy drink very fast and developed a headache. He asked me what was going on, and I told him “brain freeze.” He asked what causes “brain freeze.” What is the medical explanation for brain freeze?
This is a very interesting question and, until just a few years ago, medical science did not understand the process completely. The condition goes by several names including “brain freeze,” “ice-cream headache,” and “cold-induced headache.” The precise medical name of the phenomenon is “sphenopalatine ganglioneuralgia.”
Researchers at Harvard University first described the cause back in 2012. When something very cold touches the back roof of the mouth (the area of the mouth called the “palate”), the body is exquisitely sensitive to this temperature change.
The body, through evolution, is afraid that the brain is going to get too cold, and as a protective mechanism, the body dramatically increases blood flow to the brain to keep it warm. When this happens, the increased blood flow causes a minor and temporary increased pressure in the brain that we perceive as pain.
This short-term headache is the pain we all have experienced at one time or another known as “brain freeze.” One quick way to get rid of brain freeze is to drink something warm. Most often, it will rapidly resolve as the mouth warms up.
By studying the phenomenon of “sphenopalatine ganglioneuralgia,” we can better understand headaches case by blood flow changes to the brain such as vascular headaches and even migraine headaches. There may even be a relationship to headaches associated with traumatic head injury and blood flow changes.
By better understanding the effects of blood flow changes in the brain, we may develop better and more effective medicines to treat several types of debilitating headaches. Just think, this was made possible, in part, from someone who ate their ice cream too fast on a hot day.
Charles E. Crutchfield III, MD is a board certified dermatologist and Clinical Professor of Dermatology at the University of Minnesota Medical School. He also has a private practice in Eagan, MN. He has been selected as one of the top 10 dermatologists in the United States by Black Enterprise magazine and one of the top 21 African American physicians in the U.S. by the Atlanta Post. Dr. Crutchfield is an active member of the Minnesota Association of Black Physicians, MABP.org.