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Searching for the cause of 'brain freeze'
April 23rd, 2012
03:38 PM ET

Searching for the cause of 'brain freeze'

It’s possibly the cruelest joke a brain can play: One minute you’re devouring a delicious ice cream sundae in delight, the next you’re holding a palm to your forehead in excruciating pain.

For the next 10 seconds, what you laughingly refer to as “brain freeze” (when other people get it) is no laughing matter.

Researchers induced such pain in 27 healthy volunteers in a new study presented at the Experimental Biology 2012 conference in San Diego this week.

Lead author Jorge Serrador and his team were trying to identify exactly what causes brain freeze. They hoped that by pinpointing the cause they would influence future research on migraines or post-traumatic headaches.

Approximately 10% of the population suffers from migraines, according to Cathy Glaser, president of the Migraine Research Foundation, which was not associated with the study. “We do not know what causes migraines... there are a lot of theories around, but that’s why basic research is so essential.”

It’s certainly not a new field. Since the late 1970s, researchers like Dr. Neil Raskin and Joseph Hulihan have been studying brain freeze - also called an “ice cream headache” or “sphenopalatine ganglioneuralgia” - as a way to identify the cause of headaches. This phenomenon is easy to investigate because it can be brought on without drugs, and resolves quickly on its own.

Serrador’s team had each volunteer drink ice water from a straw pressed against the roof of his or her mouth – optimal placement to induce brain freeze. The volunteers then raised a hand when they felt pain, stopped drinking and then raised a hand again when the pain disappeared.

Using a transcranial Doppler, the researchers measured the velocity of blood flow through the brain’s blood vessels.

Blood flow increased significantly in the anterior cerebral artery when the volunteers felt pain. This artery feeds the brain’s frontal lobe (remember the palm to your forehead?). The artery then constricted as the volunteers’ pain subsided.

“We’re not sure what might be causing the pain itself,” Serrador said.

One possible reason is the increase in pressure that’s associated with the influx of blood flow to the frontal lobe, he said. The ice water could also be hitting the trigeminal nerve in your upper palate, which would deliver pain messages to the brain. Or the brain could just be susceptible to temperature.

More sophisticated research is needed, said Dr. Seymour Diamond, executive chairman and co-founder of the National Headache Foundation. Although a few studies have shown a link between people who get migraines and those who suffer from brain freeze, more have shown no link at all.

“I’m wary of the results,” he said. “I don’t think this is going to be a breakthrough for migraine or post-concussion headaches.”

Serrador plans to continue researching the topic. His next step is to block the trigeminal nerve during testing to see if that would eliminate the brain freeze phenomenon or if the increased blood flow would still cause pain.


soundoff (139 Responses)
  1. WRS

    I get "throat freeze" rather than brain freeze sometimes when eating ice cream. That pain is also excruciating. My mother used to argue with me while it was happening insisting that it must be brain freeze.

    April 23, 2012 at 16:38 | Report abuse | Reply
    • JCG

      Same here. I very rarely get Brain freeze, but my throat will freeze up long before I can give myself a headache.

      April 23, 2012 at 16:55 | Report abuse |
    • Fiona

      Maybe it's a muscle spasm?

      April 23, 2012 at 20:16 | Report abuse |
    • ART

      I just said the exact same thing before I read your comment. I get "throat freeze"!

      April 23, 2012 at 22:14 | Report abuse |
    • Sue Tervonen

      I'll get it in my chest as well. Generally it tends to be worse (both brain and chest freeze) when allergies are bad.

      April 23, 2012 at 23:23 | Report abuse |
    • physnchips

      Yeah, if I get any "freeze" effect at all it's tummy freeze.

      April 23, 2012 at 23:57 | Report abuse |
    • Frank

      47 degree F water can cause the same thing but from the outside in. I went diving for abalone a few weeks back N. ca and forgot my hood. I drove a long way to get there so I thought I would try to dive without it. In about 6 feet of water (normally I dive 20 feet) I went down about five time to try to acclimate myself to the cold water. In less than 15 seconds I would get a “brainfreeze” headache and be forced to the surface. The headache would last for a few minutes and the top of my head would feel like pins and needles were poking it for a minuet or so. I had to stop cause not only because was I not acclimating, but also I was getting groggy from the experience. I spoke to a guy at work and he got a brain freeze (also while diving) with his hood on. I have seen one person diving without a hood and I timed him, he stayed down for about a minuet, so I guess not everyone is affected the same.

      April 24, 2012 at 02:43 | Report abuse |
    • fastnoc

      so the result is, nothing was accomplished.

      Great story

      April 24, 2012 at 03:02 | Report abuse |
    • Michael Hunt Esq.

      +1 for throat freeze. That's what I get as well.

      April 24, 2012 at 07:37 | Report abuse |
    • Wen

      Interesting. My wife also gets "throat freeze". I get excruciating brain freeze if I drink McDonalds Frappes (which I love) too fast,

      April 24, 2012 at 08:34 | Report abuse |
  2. jstout511

    I heard long ago that when you get a brain freeze you have to press your tongue against the roof of your mouth (massaging it a bit) to warm it. It works every time.

    April 23, 2012 at 19:18 | Report abuse | Reply
    • gregor

      yeah everything "works". It goes away soon enough whether you do anything or not.

      April 23, 2012 at 22:22 | Report abuse |
    • Mike

      a drink of water works every time. It equalizes the cold

      April 24, 2012 at 05:26 | Report abuse |
    • Sunny D

      Ha! My sister just told me about the tongue trick this weekend while we were eating ice cream and I got brain freeze. Mine usually lasts for about ten seconds, but when I did the tongue thing it was around five seconds.

      April 24, 2012 at 08:24 | Report abuse |
    • Ken

      Put your thumb to the roof of your mouth and it will stop it sooner along with quick exhaling to get warm air up from your lungs to warm your mouth.

      April 24, 2012 at 09:57 | Report abuse |
  3. Marjorie

    These people in San Diego are no fun. Getting brain freeze won't hurt you at all.

    April 23, 2012 at 19:44 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Derek

      How do you know that? Maybe every time you get brain freeze it takes a month off your life?

      April 24, 2012 at 07:53 | Report abuse |
    • Hadenuffyet

      BS , it hurts plenty...lol

      April 24, 2012 at 08:17 | Report abuse |
    • PantyRaid

      There is plenty of snow in San Diego. You just have to look for the white horse.

      April 24, 2012 at 09:44 | Report abuse |
  4. Fiona

    Bummer...I clicked on this thinking it was about those moments when you know what you want to say and can't locate the words. But I guess that's a brain f art.

    April 23, 2012 at 20:14 | Report abuse | Reply
    • billnyethescienceguy

      its called presque vu not brain freeze

      April 24, 2012 at 00:31 | Report abuse |
    • Jigga

      Thanks, needed that this morning...:)

      April 24, 2012 at 06:03 | Report abuse |
  5. chandler l

    i don't think its a very good idea at the time we still have people dying every day because of diseases and we are wasting maybe billions of dollars to research little things like a ten second headache i mean really.

    April 23, 2012 at 20:52 | Report abuse | Reply
    • I call BS

      "maybe billions of dollars"? I doubt even a small fraction of that amount is being used for this research. Do you have any evidence to the contrary?

      April 23, 2012 at 21:34 | Report abuse |
    • DAT

      The research is to help with migraines – anything but a minor problem.

      April 23, 2012 at 22:08 | Report abuse |
    • I call BS

      And really, don't you just love the ignoramus who thinks a migraine is a "ten-second headache"?

      What a moron.

      April 23, 2012 at 22:11 | Report abuse |
    • gabe

      If only there was "billions" of dollars being spent on headache research! The entire NIH budget is ~30 billion...the defense budget goes up 30 billion a year...sad...

      April 23, 2012 at 22:14 | Report abuse |
    • gabe

      That being said, this research is a far cry from real migrane research. There is plenty of real, valuable work that isn't getting funded. Not sure this is it.

      April 23, 2012 at 22:18 | Report abuse |
    • doodlebug2222

      When a person or group decides to research something, often it does not really matter what the rest of the world deems "worthy of their attention" but what the person/group themselves want to research. Often, the most farfetched thing can also indirectly end up linking to things directly – although initially, you would not think so. It's about exploring and grants are setup by persons – to help fund research. The researchers must of course present their case, giving a solid basis off what they hope to find, before earning the funds – as well as list much much more. If we pointed down one singular road, we would of not progressed as much as we have. Instead, we had persons take the many many branching roads, most – persons often thought went to – no where. Think about how initially TV began as well as radio – how they ended up quasi marrying and adding to other technologies that – gave us global communications through the various methods we now have. Even our beloved Internet – once began as only a method for the military to do electronic queries, and tests, etc..

      April 23, 2012 at 22:39 | Report abuse |
    • Jacques Strappe, World Famous French Ball Carrier

      chandler has never had a migraine apparently or he didn't read the story. Probably both though.

      April 24, 2012 at 09:19 | Report abuse |
  6. deb

    Sipping warm water helps immediately.

    April 23, 2012 at 21:34 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Mark P.

      That's what I was going to say. I always assumed there was link between brain freeze and the amount of cold product in your stomach. Seems like as soon as the cold thing you swallow warms up, the brain freeze goes away (and hence the reason why the warm water works). I'm skeptical that the roof of the mouth is involved, because if you gulp ice cream quickly, barely letting it touch the roof of your mouth, you will get the worst brain freeze, where as if you suck on an ice cube, you won't get brain freeze. The cold thing has to be swallowed for it to happen. At least that's how it works for me.

      April 23, 2012 at 22:18 | Report abuse |
  7. gabe

    This is a perfect example of the sad state of scientific reporting on CNN and elsewhere. There is no real finding here...really a pathetic attempt to over-hype a trivial finding...and yet CNN tries to draw us in with an oversold headline.

    April 23, 2012 at 22:12 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Jigga

      Yet you clicked on it, thought the headline was pretty clear...

      April 24, 2012 at 06:10 | Report abuse |
    • Boo

      no, we learned that they're not sure.

      “We’re not sure what might be causing the pain itself,” Serrador said.

      April 24, 2012 at 06:16 | Report abuse |
    • Jimmy Joe Jim Bob

      Without "trivial findings", like Isaac Newton discovering the acceleration due to gravity, there would be no "major findings".

      You're just the typical double-digit IQ numbskull trying to justify his ignorance with some trailer park logic.

      April 24, 2012 at 07:02 | Report abuse |
  8. Rexxrally

    i figured out years ago how to instantly stop brain freeze. Tilt your head up. With your fingertips, find the "dent" in the back of your neck, right at the base of your skull. Press in firmly and steadily right there. The brain freeze stops immediately. I don't know why. Maybe the cold in your throat spreads to nerves back there that travel up into your head, and pressure stops it?

    April 23, 2012 at 22:13 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. Tommy

    I did an experiment on brain freezes in high school. Bought a bunch of Slushee's/Icee's and had volunteers chug thru a straw for as long as they could. Wish I had the facial expressions / reactions to share with you all 🙂 Funny stuff.

    April 23, 2012 at 22:14 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Jigga

      I used to challenge my little brother to a slushee drinking "contest"...he fell for that more times than he'd probably like me to divulge...

      April 24, 2012 at 06:12 | Report abuse |
    • c00ter

      Jigga, WHAT?

      April 24, 2012 at 10:58 | Report abuse |
  10. puckles

    That kid's teeth look like a Ferengis.

    April 23, 2012 at 22:17 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. Tom

    All that $ to research it and they still don't know. I'm so glad I pay my taxes. FYI – hold your hand over your nose and mouth when you breathe and it makes the pain go away.

    April 23, 2012 at 22:21 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Jimmy Joe Jim Bob

      You're just the typical double-digit IQ numbskull trying to justify his ignorance with some trailer park logic.

      April 24, 2012 at 07:03 | Report abuse |
  12. JG

    I always attributed this to sinus's. It made sense to me. If you apply cold like that, I figured it just made my sinus's constrict and cause the nerves to send the pain signals. I've had sinus infections before, and its the same type of pain. But, what do I know. 🙂

    April 23, 2012 at 22:24 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. Uncle George

    I can't believe they need to spend money to research this. The answer was found many years ago: As the ice cream (or other cold substance) comes in contact with the upper palate, it causes the sinus cavity temperature to drop. That drop in temperature causes an inflammation of the trigeminal nerves and sends the signal of pain to the brain. Pressing the tongue (if it's now warm enough) or a thumb to the upper palate usually warms things up enough to end the pain. I sincerely hope the government refuses any and all funding for such unnecessary garbage that floats around under the guise of being called "research". What's next, studying owl spit ... oh wait, they already gave out money for that.

    April 23, 2012 at 22:26 | Report abuse | Reply
    • doodlebug2222

      It never said the government funded this. At many colleges and universities the students and instructors are required to do research which is funded by grants – or awards. Most of these are funds contributed by previous students, stakeholders, community memebers and such. The required reseach is to ensure research does continue – and as how tossing pennies into a jar add up over time, so does research. We may thing we know the answer, but I remember 30+ years ago – we thought the same. I don't remember having 99% of the technology we do now. Medical research also has came very far.

      April 23, 2012 at 22:43 | Report abuse |
    • Tim R

      As mentioned in the article, the trigeminal nerve theory is exactly that, a *theory.* And the research itself has possible implications, over the LONG-term, for helping migraine sufferers. Migraines cost billions of lost "man-dollars" per year.
      So maybe take a second look at what you're quick to call "wasted tax dollars." 😉

      April 24, 2012 at 01:44 | Report abuse |
    • Jimmy Joe Jim Bob

      You started off sounding rather knowledgeable, but then you rant into a typical double-digit IQ numbskull diatribe, trying to justify your ignorance with some trailer park logic.

      April 24, 2012 at 07:06 | Report abuse |
  14. Vanessa

    Keep a room-temperature or warm beverage nearby when enjoying that ice-cream... if the brain freeze comes on,just sip the beverage and the pain goes right away! But I have often wondered why we get BF in the first place? Is it the body's way of signaling that what we are ingesting is unhealthily cold?

    April 23, 2012 at 22:28 | Report abuse | Reply
    • doodlebug2222

      Maybe it's specific spots that the super-cold hits, that triggers a response to immediately warm and it causes some chain reaction > causing the brain freeze? I rarely have gotten them, but I have gotten many horrible headaches.

      April 23, 2012 at 22:45 | Report abuse |
  15. 51k23

    Hm...its weird. I never had brain freeze before.

    April 23, 2012 at 22:34 | Report abuse | Reply
  16. the truther

    want to stop brain freeze? become an atheist

    April 23, 2012 at 22:55 | Report abuse | Reply
    • I call BS

      Nah, become a fundie. That'll do it. They don't have brains to freeze.

      April 23, 2012 at 23:07 | Report abuse |
  17. Marine5484

    I always thought that it was the blood heading to your brain being slightly cooler then the rest of the blood and giving your brain a "shock".

    April 23, 2012 at 23:01 | Report abuse | Reply
  18. wendyreames

    maybe it happens when the cold going down the throat passes the carotid artery going up the neck, cooling the blood. but I would have thought this would constrict the vessels and the article says they expand rapidly. Maybe the body overcompensates to try and keep the brain warm enough?

    April 23, 2012 at 23:12 | Report abuse | Reply
  19. soulman

    Excruciating pain? I've never had a brain freeze cause "excruciating pain". Maybe slight pain. Now a root canal, that is excruciating.

    April 23, 2012 at 23:27 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Jimmy Joe Jim Bob

      Well, lucky you. Maybe everyone isn't exactly the same. I don't suppose that thought ever passed through that thing you call a brain, or any other thought, for that matter.

      April 24, 2012 at 07:08 | Report abuse |
  20. CJ

    Maybe it is simply the same response the body does when it is immersed in cold water. The blood is pulled from the extremeties to protect the core. The pain is the result of excessive blood flow to the brain.

    April 23, 2012 at 23:31 | Report abuse | Reply
  21. dergrg

    A brain freeze helps to explain pain to a child. When my mother was dying from lung cancer my little daughter was trying to understand what bad pain was all about. She had had brain freezes that really hurt, so I just told her that real bad pain was like a brain freeze that doesn't go away. She paled a little bit but understood a lot better what her grandma was going through.

    April 24, 2012 at 00:09 | Report abuse | Reply
  22. Obama from KFC

    ....I gets me a brain freeze when I eat too much KFC and Michelle starts a ye'll at me.

    -obo

    April 24, 2012 at 00:22 | Report abuse | Reply
  23. polycarp pio

    A whole article to tell us they dont know what causes brain freeze?????????????????????????????????? PP

    April 24, 2012 at 00:34 | Report abuse | Reply
  24. Sam

    I have had "brain freeze" ever since I was a kid and I continue to suffer from it at age 70. Never had a migraine. I learned the tongue against the roof of the mouth treatment and I learned to drink very cold drinks slowly and to eat ice cream slowly to combat the effect.

    April 24, 2012 at 00:54 | Report abuse | Reply
  25. CoolAsIce

    Oh, cool! An article about the cause of brain freeze. What does the article reveal? The cause of brain freeze is unknown. Thank you.

    April 24, 2012 at 01:02 | Report abuse | Reply
  26. Spence

    It's almost my birthday and NOW I want an ice cream cone RIGHT NOW! 😦

    April 24, 2012 at 01:10 | Report abuse | Reply
  27. Me

    This is just stupid. That area of your body is highly vascular. It has to be for your nose, (just above the hard palate), to properly humidify the air you breathe in. When a vascular bed that complex is exposed to a dramatic decrease in temperature the blood flow there will slow down. This will cause a back-up of pressure in the area. It is this pressure that causes the pain in brain freeze. This has not been a mystery for a long time now.

    April 24, 2012 at 01:37 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Dave

      So in other words, you have no clue what you're talking about

      April 24, 2012 at 09:13 | Report abuse |
  28. ac

    who is paying for this "research"?

    April 24, 2012 at 01:43 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Tim R

      People who aren't going to be funding a colony on Mars because they've become a bunch of short-sighted easily-led-by-Fox-news whimps. As opposed to China, which will reap all the industrial, financial and military benefits. Like America did in the 60s when it CHOSE to go to the moon even though there would be some loss here and there.

      April 24, 2012 at 01:47 | Report abuse |
  29. Tim R

    Just a thought: Most people have *no* idea what the phrase "excruciating pain" means. i.m.o. brain freeze would be classified as "moderate discomfort" by most physicians. It's at about 3 or 4 on a scale from 1 to 10. It's "just a taste"
    of pain.

    April 24, 2012 at 01:50 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Jimmy Joe Jim Bob

      Most physicians are self-satisfied and willfully ignorant, just like you.

      April 24, 2012 at 07:11 | Report abuse |
  30. craving_sweets

    Here I was thinking that the participants got to eat from an all they can eat ice cream buffet! I'm craving some frozen treats now.. CURSES!

    April 24, 2012 at 03:16 | Report abuse | Reply
  31. closer3

    I'm part of the 10% who get migraines. One of my triggers is going out into very cold weather in the winter, 20 degrees or colder, especially when my forehead is not well wrapped.

    April 24, 2012 at 04:36 | Report abuse | Reply
  32. decaf

    This past year I started having that brain freeze problem, so I just don't drink anything extra cold any more. Oh, yes, it is excruciating pain. Coincidently, I also started having migraines for the first time. The migraines were due partly to stress, but more so from any small amount of caffeine at all. So I've gone totally decaf and it's helped totally. Can't have any Starbucks coffee frappuccinos any more, darn it.

    April 24, 2012 at 05:42 | Report abuse | Reply
  33. Mark

    It's the nerve. Because if you bath the roof of your mouth in something warm you can force the headache to subside quickly.

    April 24, 2012 at 05:54 | Report abuse | Reply
  34. Jigga

    Just make a really tortured facial expression and slap your hand to your forehead, pain will be gone in 15-20 seconds...everytime.

    April 24, 2012 at 06:15 | Report abuse | Reply
  35. Badonkadonk!

    i get butt freeze when i eat or drink something cold. can science explain that??? no of course not. only jesus can.

    April 24, 2012 at 06:50 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Jimmy Joe Jim Bob

      I wonder how many generations of your family have been inbreeding?

      April 24, 2012 at 07:12 | Report abuse |
  36. gentilej

    DRINK ROOM TEMPERATURE WATER, pain is gone immediately.

    April 24, 2012 at 07:15 | Report abuse | Reply
  37. JeffinIL

    Great article explaining that brain-freeze is still unexplained.
    I hope I just added to the explanation of the lack of explanation.

    April 24, 2012 at 07:26 | Report abuse | Reply
  38. Jigga

    Jimmy Joe Jim Bob, you should check this video out..

    http://www.nbc.com/saturday-night-live/video/Internet-Comments-Talk-Show/1359602

    April 24, 2012 at 07:56 | Report abuse | Reply
  39. Dee G

    I have never gotten a brain freeze, but I do get migraines (usually caused by stress) – weird.

    April 24, 2012 at 08:34 | Report abuse | Reply
  40. T'sah from Virginia

    Mine is in the throat and brain. Obviously, when the cold hits the nerve in your neck/chest area, the brain reacts. Therefore, maybe migraines are caused by that same nerve being squeezed or pinched?? Maybe? So to cure the migraine headache, maybe they should look into that – maybe acupunture can cure the migraine by interacting with that nerve – Hmm, just a thought...(Dang, I should patent this ... LMAO)

    April 24, 2012 at 08:47 | Report abuse | Reply
  41. Doctor Distraction

    Here's an instant brain freeze cure for men – as soon as your head starts hurting, have an eight year old kid hit you in the balls with a wiffle ball bat. Works every time!

    April 24, 2012 at 08:48 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Dave

      It hasn't worked for you

      April 24, 2012 at 09:04 | Report abuse |
  42. Doodle

    This blog is giving me a migraine.

    ...research that.

    April 24, 2012 at 08:58 | Report abuse | Reply
  43. Dave

    I have no brain. Therefore, no freeze

    April 24, 2012 at 09:03 | Report abuse | Reply
  44. AByronC

    I don't understand why people are complaining about the "money" spent on this. It was essentially at activity at a science conference. The "cost" involved, ice water, volunteers and a piece of equipment that the researchers already owned for other purposes. It was essentially the cost equivalent to handing out free ice water. This was an activity for entertainment and to draw attention to a particular field of research as well as to draw an interest in scientific investigation from the general public.

    April 24, 2012 at 09:14 | Report abuse | Reply
  45. Joe

    That picture of that little boy is so cute.

    Regards, pedophile Joe

    April 24, 2012 at 09:20 | Report abuse | Reply
  46. Cranley

    Brain Freeze is performed by Drowning Fish, neg roes. Get it right.

    April 24, 2012 at 09:38 | Report abuse | Reply
  47. Mendozian

    Sphenopalatine Ganglioneuralgia would be an awesome name for a band, or a child.

    April 24, 2012 at 09:44 | Report abuse | Reply
  48. DefBea

    I wonder who I could contact about this study. I am a traumatic brain injury survivor and about a half of my brain is now scar tissue (I am living proof of brain "plasticity"). Interestingly enough, when I get "brain freeze" it occurs on the side where there is only scar tissue. Perhaps this suggest the 'headache' does not occur in the brain; but, in the blood vessels, skin, brain covering, and skull. It is just a thought.....

    April 24, 2012 at 09:45 | Report abuse | Reply
  49. babababababababa

    Did you ever consider the fact that you were all up in Braintree? Therefore you got your brain freezed

    April 24, 2012 at 09:46 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Cranley

      I did not consider this. I've been insane in the membrane for years. Say whaaatt?

      April 24, 2012 at 09:47 | Report abuse |
  50. DD

    I want to volunteer!!!!

    April 24, 2012 at 09:49 | Report abuse | Reply
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