Why Do People Get Brain Freeze?

Jacki Lyden gets to the root of the ice cream headache with Dr. Jason Rosenberg, director of the Johns Hopkins Headache Center. It's caused by irritation to a very specific set of nerves, he says.

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JACKI LYDEN, host:

It's hot outside. You're going to be walking down the street. You're going to see an ice cream truck.

(Soundbite of TV show "Saturday Night Live")

Mr. CHRISTOPHER WALKEN (Actor): (As Ed Glosser) You're going to treat yourself to a vanilla ice cream. You're going to eat it too fast. You're going to get an ice cream headache.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WALKEN: (As Ed Glosser) It's going to hurt real bad. Right here for eight, nine seconds.

LYDEN: Christopher Walken playing the trivial psychic on Saturday Night Live and riffing his own performance in "The Dead Zone" - that great 1983 movie.

Now, an ice cream headache may be trivial but it got us thinking why do we get them at all? The truth behind the brain freeze on this week's Science Out of the Icebox.

(Soundbite of music)

LYDEN: With us now is the director of the Johns Hopkins Headache Center, Dr. Jason Rosenberg, and he joins us from WYPR in Baltimore. Welcome to the show.

Doctor JASON ROSENBERG (Director, Johns Hopkins Headache Center): Thank you for having me here, Jacki. I appreciate it.

LYDEN: Well, I hope you appreciate the careful research we did into this phenomenon.

Dr. ROSENBERG: Yes. Christopher Walken actually summarized ice cream headache very nicely there.

LYDEN: So, you know, it is something, though, that I think we can all remember - kids especially - you eat your Slurpee or your ice cream too quickly and the next thing you know your nose and your head is hurting. What's going on?

Dr. ROSENBERG: The thought is that it's a combination of constriction and dilation of blood vessels and irritation of a very specific set of nerves that originate in the soft palette and then connect to a complicated web of nerves behind the nose that then go up to the forehead.

And what's really interesting about it is that although the cold stimulus is in the palette, the pain is almost always felt behind the eyes or in the forehead or elsewhere. So, it's an example of radiating pain. Another example that people might know of that is when a heart attack is felt in the jaw or down the arm or even in the teeth.

So, it's one these quirky wiring problems of the nervous system that mislocalizes pain.

LYDEN: So, are certain people more susceptible?

Dr. ROSENBERG: Yes. Several studies have actually shown that patients with migraines are more susceptible to brain freeze or ice cream headaches. There is some involvement of the migraine mechanism in those patients.

LYDEN: So, if you want to avoid the brain freeze and you're, say, off to the state fair and you just kind of forget, once it's come upon you, you can cup your hands over your nasal passages or, what, eat something warm?

Dr. ROSENBERG: So, the beauty of it is it almost always goes away in a minute. And so it's hard to prove that anything actually works. I've read that you can sip warm water, that you can try panting hard into your cupped hands to rewarm your palette. Another little trick, people try to curl their tongue back and touch the warm underside of their tongue against the soft palette.

So, those are capable of such lingual gymnastics can try that. But it's hard to prove that it does anything because it's a self-limiting headache. It almost always is gone in seconds - much as Christopher Walken properly identified.

LYDEN: Dr. Jason Rosenberg directs the Johns Hopkins Headache Center. Thanks again for joining us.

Dr. ROSENBERG: Yeah, anytime. Anything I can do to keep the Good Humor business happy.

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