You’re sipping an icy beverage when suddenly, out of nowhere, this incredible pain, unlike any ache you’ve felt, begins in that lost space between the top of your mouth and the bottom of your brain. While it lasts only seconds, at the moment it’s an endless crescendo of agony that stops you in your tracks, contorting your face and forcing you to grab your temples to somehow make it stop. What did you do to deserve such a brief misery?
We still don’t fully understand the “brain freeze” phenomenon, but we’re getting there. And when we have it figured out, we’ll be a lot closer to solving the mystery of migraines.
The pain occurs when something very cold touches the roof of the mouth (the upper palate). Fast consumption of ice cream, popsicles and cold drinks are famous for it. Drinking an iced beverage through a straw sends a chilled missile of liquid at the upper palate and triggers the pain conundrum.
Earlier this year, Harvard Medical School scientists reported their study involving thirteen healthy adults who were asked to cause a brain freeze by sipping ice water. An instrument then measured the blood flow in their brains. The results found that the brain is highly sensitive to temperature, and it naturally responds to cold by trying to keep itself warm. So when the roof of the mouth has a sudden icy attack, the brain quickly dilates its arteries to increase the blood flow and keep the whole system at body temperature. The sudden rush of blood through cerebral arteries raises pressure and causes pain. As soon as the blood vessels constrict back to normal, the pain abates.
Our natural response to a brain freeze then is to warm up the roof of the mouth as fast as possible. Many people recommend this, either by slamming the warm tongue up against the upper palate, drinking a hot beverage, etc. It’s hard to say what works, as by the time those efforts are or are not placed, the agony seems to subside.
So the brain has this great defense mechanism, but it’s more complicated than that. The vascular changes likely trigger a series of neural firings that set biochemical reactions in motion, all related to the experience of pain. Or perhaps it’s the neural firings that occur first, and that triggers the vascular changes. That’s the part we still don’t understand.
People with migraine headaches suffer a complex mixture of vascular stretching and contracting accompanied by an unpredictable assortment of neural connections that all remain a mystery. So studying the brain freeze may just get us closer to finding a solution for the migraine.
Now, who’s up to be a volunteer for the next study? Looking for healthy adults willing to quickly consume ice cream. Flavor of your choosing!