Brain Freeze is Triggered in the Sinuses
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.
Photo: Tom Magliery (cc)