Brain Freeze is Triggered in the Sinuses

March 4, 2011 at 2:00 am 7 comments

By Chad Upton | Editor

When I was a kid, the local 7-11 had 20 Slurpee flavors. Every Saturday, my brother Brett and I would bike there with a palm full of allowance and return with a belly full of food coloring. We didn’t know how lucky we were — I’ve never seen another convenience store with that many flavors. But, there was one thing we did know: BRAIN FREEZE.

While it’s frequently called brain freeze or ice-cream headache, this mind numbing pain is known as sphenopalatine ganglioneuralgia in the medical community. Don’t even try to sound-it-out, even the British Medical Journal calls it ice-cream headache.

It happens to some people more easily than others and although your childhood imagination may disagree, your brain is not actually being frozen. The pain stems from a defense mechanism that is employed all over your body.

When it’s cold outside, your arms and legs usually cool down faster than your core because they generally have less insulation (fat) than your core. Because blood flows into your extremities and then back to your heart, the blood coming back will cool down your core. Your body protects itself from rapid cooling by constricting the veins in your extremeties, which reduces flow and slows the return of colder blood into your core.

This is a temporary reaction. After some time, the blood-vessels will expand to allow greater flow so these parts get proper blood flow again. This affect can be quite noticeable in the right conditions. If you’re outside for a while, you may find that your fingers are cold at first, but feel warm later. This is part of the reason they warm up. Also, redness in your cheeks is caused when the blood-vessels expand like this.

As you consume extremely cold food and beverages, the capillaries in your sinuses can rapidly constrict when cooled and expand when warmed. Pain receptors react to this by sending signals to your brain via the trigeminal nerve, the same nerve responsible for sensations in the face. This is why it can feel like the pain is coming from your forehead.

To get rid of a slushie stinger, some doctors suggest holding your tongue on the roof of your mouth to warm it up. Another tip, which you probably learned at a young age, eat slowly!

There is also a belief that you can only get brain freeze in warm environments, but that’s not true.

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Photo: Tom Magliery (cc)

Sources: Wikipedia, British Medical Journal, io9,

Entry filed under: Demystified, Food and Drink, Health and Beauty. Tags: , , , , , , , , .

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7 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Richard Masoner  |  March 7, 2011 at 7:44 pm

    Aw, c’mon – “sphenopalatine ganglioneuralgia” isn’t all that hard to sound out! :-) “sss fee no pal uh teen gang lee oh noor al jee uh.”


  • 2. Jen  |  March 11, 2011 at 10:51 am

    Came here via your buddy at

    If your sinuses are clogged enough, it will keep you from getting an ice cream headache. It happened to me one summer; it was really hot and I was so excited to get my ice cream cone I gobbled it down. I was halfway through when I realized I should have gotten brain freeze but didn’t. :)

    I’ll remember that tongue trick. Thanks!

  • 3. leendadll  |  March 13, 2011 at 4:44 am

    I heard that tongue/roof-of-mouth theory recently and, upon getting brain freeze tonight, tried it out. Didn’t work at all. Probably because my tongue was cold too. While waiting for the pain to pass, I commented that I had a pre-warning but went for the next slurp anyway. 48 and I still haven’t learned better.

    I like you pointing out the sinus connection because tonight was the first time I had brain freeze all the way down the right side of my nose. A bizarre experience at best.

    fyi: came over from 1000 Awesome Things’ link.

  • 4. Leesa  |  March 14, 2011 at 11:34 pm

    Actually my uncle came up with the best way to treat a brain freeze. Hold the cold beverage to your forehead. I don’t know why this works but it does.

    • 5. Jen  |  March 15, 2011 at 7:31 am

      Interesting. Probably not the best idea if you’re eating an ice cream cone, though. ;)

  • 7. Steve Jones  |  February 24, 2013 at 12:12 pm

    I’ve tried this trick to get rid of the freeze. Holding your hand to your mouth and not blowing air, but discharging your breath back thru your mouth seems to warm everything back up.


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