We have all suffered from the agonising pain of brain freeze though glutinous ice-cream eating or summer popsicle sucking in the park, and although the aliment is hardly grave or life threatening, the condition has been the subject of published papers in the BMJ and Scientific America. So what does science have to tell us about the turmoil of ice-cream consumption?
It’s all about the palate. Whist you may experience the pain travelling from your forehead you would be wrong to assume that’s where is it coming from. Brain freeze, ice-cream headache or sphenopalatine ganglioneuralgia if you wish to get technical, is due to the contraction of blood vessels in the roof of your mouth (palate) from the cool of the liquid or food. Once swallowed and the cool substance has passed, the sinus capillaries rapidly di
late in order to reheat the area. The reaction is comparative to your checks flushing during a cold winter walk to university. The ricochet of contraction and intense dilation is ‘mis-detected’ by local pain receptors that propagate the impulse to the brain along the trigeminal nerve. A major facial sensory nerve, the trigeminal nerve primarily detects pain, so when activated by receptors in the palate the brain interprets the neural signal to be coming from the forehead where the nerve begins towards the central nervous system. The phenomenon is known as ‘referred pain’, a perception of pain located in a different region of
the body from where the pain receptors are being activated.
How do we prevent this?
- Quickly warm the roof of your mouth! If done quickly enough it will prevent the constriction of the blood vessels enough not to activate the pain, pushing your tongue or fingers up against the palate should cause relief (though don’t be too over enthusiastic you may hit your palatine uvula and trigger the gag reflex.)
- Don’t let the cold substance touch your palate! Easier said than done, the swallowing mechanism automatically causes you to force liquid and food up onto the roof of your mouth, so unless you’re a wizard at swallowing with your mouth open this is useless advice.
- Do let it touch your palate! Yes either will work, remember it is the rapid rebounding of contraction and dilation that’ll be causing you pain so forcing the vessels to go one way or the other and stay there shouldn’t give you pain.
There are in fact conflicting theories on brain freeze; whilst you may wonder why scientists spend money and time on such a trivial matter (curing cancer seems like a better investment). The mechanisms on brain freeze and referral pain research aids us in understanding the similar mechanisms of migraine and heart attacks, highlighting just how inextricably linked the body is to each part.