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 (197 Responses)
  1. duh

    Patient: Doc, it hurts when I do this......

    Doctor responds: Then don't do that.

    April 24, 2012 at 10:04 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. duh

    please tell me my taxes weren't wasted to help pay for this.

    April 24, 2012 at 10:05 | Report abuse | Reply
    • ThisorThat

      No, they were just WASTED.

      April 24, 2012 at 10:12 | Report abuse |
    • TheMovieFan

      Much much more tax dollars are wasted being sent to red welfare states (like Mitch McConnell's Kentucky) that get more in federal spending dollars than they pay in federal tax dollars.

      April 24, 2012 at 12:16 | Report abuse |
    • galaxy101

      @ThisorThat... They WERE wasted. They were never 'just' 😉

      April 25, 2012 at 11:04 | Report abuse |
  3. Frank

    Hold your tongue to the roof of your mouth, the absolute quickest cure for brain freeze. It warms the blood leading to the brain. This really works.

    April 24, 2012 at 10:12 | Report abuse | Reply
    • tcp

      I had NO idea the blood supply to my brain went through my palate...*sigh*

      April 24, 2012 at 12:02 | Report abuse |
    • escher7

      I use my thumb. And yes, even though the pain apparently comes from the blood vessel, warming the roof of your mouth does help. After all, getting it cold is what caused the pain.

      April 24, 2012 at 19:49 | Report abuse |
    • RDSHU


      April 25, 2012 at 13:44 | Report abuse |
  4. Cold Showers

    My wife gets a headache when I want to have sex with her. Study that.

    April 24, 2012 at 10:15 | Report abuse | Reply
    • TheOutHouse

      Tell her to sha ve down there and the problems will vanish.

      April 24, 2012 at 10:19 | Report abuse |
    • Wifey

      Go shower! It helps

      April 24, 2012 at 10:29 | Report abuse |
    • TheInHouse

      su ck it, Wifey. You know how.

      April 24, 2012 at 10:37 | Report abuse |
    • coolbreeze

      give her to me, I'll take care of her

      April 24, 2012 at 10:41 | Report abuse |
    • escher7

      Warm the roof of her mouth with your _____ck.

      April 24, 2012 at 19:50 | Report abuse |
    • leo

      She must be licking somebodies ice cream......when you get home and ready to have sex, she is already dealing with brain freezen

      April 25, 2012 at 02:18 | Report abuse |
  5. c00ter

    Your wife has been studying me for years. Problem?

    April 24, 2012 at 10:52 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. BobZemko

    What about a study of the number of dead brain cells in Republicans?

    April 24, 2012 at 10:57 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Professor Bob

      At one time, which means there still are, people who claimed to be 'experts' believed the brain cells were not replaced, but like all self proclaimed experts, they were wrong. Current science has proven beyond any rational doubt that brain cells are replaced in healthy people who have a normal diet, just like every other cell in every other living thing that exists.

      NOTE: However, if your diet consists mainly of chips, coffee, and Scotch (or anything similar), they are not. In fact, nothing in your body can be fixed or replaced, which is why some 'students' get stupider instead of smarter at school.

      April 24, 2012 at 11:00 | Report abuse |
    • Slumerican


      April 24, 2012 at 11:05 | Report abuse |
    • escher7

      professor Bob needs to go back to school.

      April 24, 2012 at 19:51 | Report abuse |
  7. TonyInNYC

    I'm glad they're closing in on a solution to this national problem. Now I just wish they could figure out why I get blisters when I touch a hot stove. I wonder if it could have anything to do with the heat.

    April 24, 2012 at 11:00 | Report abuse | Reply
    • escher7

      Now don't be cynical. Migraines disable a lot of people. If researching ice cream headaches leads to a cure – why not?

      April 24, 2012 at 19:52 | Report abuse |
  8. Bubba Bo Brain

    Slumerican: Thanks for the constructive comment.

    April 24, 2012 at 11:13 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. Spliffster


    April 24, 2012 at 11:17 | Report abuse | Reply
    • BluntForce

      You calling me fat, Bro?

      April 24, 2012 at 11:20 | Report abuse |
  10. Joe

    These comments are giving me a headache.

    April 24, 2012 at 11:24 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Sarah

      Well they make me giggle like an uncontrollable high school girl.

      April 24, 2012 at 11:34 | Report abuse |
    • Cramer

      These pretzels are making me thirsty.

      April 24, 2012 at 11:58 | Report abuse |
  11. Tina

    So, from this article I get that they STILL DON'T KNOW what causes brain freezes. /Thanks for wasting my time reading this article.

    April 24, 2012 at 11:25 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. Ambulance abduction

    No need to worry. Obamacare will fix brain freezes, hot stoves, cold stoves, cold sores, skinned knees, leopardsy, and sour milk. Just give it time and money.

    April 24, 2012 at 11:38 | Report abuse | Reply
    • ET

      Did you get part of your name from when the aliens came to visit you? btw what's leopardsy – is that where Republicans refuse to change their spots?

      April 24, 2012 at 12:53 | Report abuse |
    • Over-Under

      ET: y u mad?

      April 24, 2012 at 13:20 | Report abuse |
    • escher7

      I am quite certain if there was an article on ants that some idiot would find a way to connect it to Obama. get used ti him – he will be around for awhile.

      April 24, 2012 at 19:54 | Report abuse |
  13. LVB

    Soooooo ~~ after reading all this crap about "why" ~ We still don't have a sure answer!

    April 24, 2012 at 11:40 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. Tyler

    While there may not be a strong link to migraines, this does sound more like the pain that people suffer from "cluster headaches"
    I hope this research looks at that angle as well.

    April 24, 2012 at 12:11 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. AnotherAtheist

    @chandler l.....the article neither stated nor implied the cost of this research. Your comment about 'spending billions' on this is pretty silly. The researchers probably scrapped together 50K in various funding, at best.

    April 24, 2012 at 13:48 | Report abuse | Reply
    • escher7

      Don't sweat it. These clowns would try to stop Salk or Fleming. The next time they get an infection they can use voodoo instead of penicillin.

      April 24, 2012 at 19:57 | Report abuse |
  16. Andrew

    Has anyone noticed that when you eat something cold that the back of the roof of the mouth tends to get ice cold then you get the head ache. Simple all the nerve endings get cold then the base of the brain stem gets cold which causes the head ache. As soon as you drink a warm water that area of the mouth gets warm the headache stops duh... .

    April 24, 2012 at 14:29 | Report abuse | Reply
  17. pacman357

    Sweet Jesus. Leave it to the U.S. to investigate a disorder with the highly complex and burdensome current treatment of SLOWING THE EFF DOWN WHEN YOU EAT. Next week, we explore what to do when the KFC gravy you're drinking starts to clog in the straw. BTW, stuff like this is why I pretend to be Canadian when travelling outside of the U.S.

    April 24, 2012 at 21:44 | Report abuse | Reply
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    The comments for this are actually much more entertaining than the article itself. 🙂

    April 25, 2012 at 01:50 | Report abuse | Reply
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  20. MELTZ

    To stop brain freeze this is what I do.. as it is occurring if I have some lukewarm water near by I drink it and the brain freeze goes away quicker.. and if I feel it coming on hurry drink the water before it attacks and then it does not happen.

    May 2, 2012 at 06:17 | Report abuse | Reply
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