26 July 2018

How to head off an ice cream headache

An ice cream headache is your body's way of telling you to slow down and take it easy.

Slow down and savour your ice cream sundae or smoothie, it's the best way to prevent the dreaded head pain commonly known as "brain freeze". Also known as ice cream headache, the sudden pain can almost make you regret scarfing that triple scoop chocolate chip. 

Alarms go off

"When you consume cold foods or drinks too fast, it cools down the carotid artery located just behind your jawline. Doing that chills the blood going to your brain," explained Dr Greg McLauchlin, an assistant professor of neurology at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.

"When it gets too cold, alarms go off and that activates nerve pain telling you to stop and back away from the smoothie!" he said in a college news release.

The medical name for brain freeze is sphenopalatine neuralgia, and it's more of a reflex than a true headache, McLauchlin said. 

Though an ice cream headache doesn't do any long-term harm, there are things you can do to avoid those few seconds of intense pain, he added.

Try to enjoy your cold treat slowly. If that's not possible, warming your mouth quickly with a warm drink might help.

Related to cluster headaches

Believe it or not, brain freeze isn't all bad.

McLauchlin noted that the condition has provided doctors with insight into cluster headaches. These are severe headaches that occur on one side of the head and are associated with red or teary eyes, runny or stuffy nose, facial flushing or sweating, or a sense of restlessness and agitation.

"The same area that causes brain freeze is also involved in cluster headaches. We treat cluster headaches by using a sphenopalatine block, basically numbing up the area involved in brain freeze," McLauchlin said

Image credit: iStock


Ask the Expert

Headache expert

Dr Elliot Shevel is a South African migraine surgery pioneer and the founder and medical director of The Headache Clinic in Johannesburg, Durban and Cape Town, South Africa. The Headache Clinic is a multidisciplinary practice dedicated to the diagnosis and treatment of Primary Headaches and Migraines. Dr Shevel is also the main author of all scientific publications generated by his team. He recently won a high level science debate in which he was able to prove that the current migraine diagnosis and classification is not based on data. Tertiary Education - Dr Shevel holds both Dental and Medical degrees, and practises as a specialist Maxillo-facial and Oral Surgeon. Follow the Headache Clinic on Twitter@HeadacheClinic.

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