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The Cause Of Brain Freeze and How To Avoid It

Q: What exactly causes brain freeze? And here’s a better question — how do I prevent it from happening in the first place?

A: Ahhh, the dreaded brain freeze. I’ve experienced too many of those myself, unfortunately. The bad thing about ice cream headaches is that they hurt — a lot. The good thing about ice cream headaches is that they are usually over in a matter of seconds, or at most a couple minutes.

Photo by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

For me, they always seem to come on slowly, with the pain starting at a 3 and working its way up to an 8 or 9 almost instantaneously. (You can tell I’ve been questioned about my level of pain in the ER a time of two.) But they usually subside as quickly as they come, and thank God for that.

And ice cream headaches don’t come only from ice cream — they can come from eating any really cold food or drink. Like Slurpees. In fact, in 1994, 7-Eleven even trademarked the term Brainfreeze to use in conjunction with its delicious frosty drink.

So what causes ice cream headaches in the first place? It has to do with the nerve receptors above the roof of your mouth. When you take a bite of ice cream, some of it touches the top of your mouth, otherwise known as the hard palate. That in turn triggers the nerves above the palate to cool down — and quick. The nerves send an emergency message to the brain that it’s about to get cold up there, and the blood vessels in the brain constrict to accommodate. When the warm blood rushes through the blood vessels again — presto! You get a searing headache similar to a migraine. Ouch! But don’t worry though, this kind of headache does not signify a serious problem.

So what to do? Well if your ice cream headache has already started, chances are it’ll be over quickly. To speed things up a bit, you can touch your tongue to the roof of your mouth and hold it there, warming up your palate and calming down the brain’s reaction.

To keep yourself from getting the freeze in the first place, try eating cold foods slower than usual and keep that ice cream away from the roof of your mouth if you can. Seem impossible? It’s not: I tried it to research its efficacy for this article, and not only is it possible; it works. (That’s right, I gave myself a brain freeze for this article. That’s how dedicated I am. As dedicated as Matt Damon gaining 40 pounds for a role.)

So have no fear. You can still enjoy your favorite ice cream sans the splitting headache. Just be sure to save some for me.

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