Cambridge MA: What causes ice cream headache?

Q. What exactly happens when I eat something cold and get an ice cream headache? Is it harmful in any way?


A. Ice cream headache, also known as "brain freeze" or cold-stimulus headache, is a headache some people get when they consume a cold food or beverage quickly. The pain is usually in the forehead or both temples, and it usually lasts less than five minutes.


Headaches inflict their misery in a variety of ways, from a dull, steady ache to a blinding, throbbing pain. Nearly everyone has them at least occasionally, but an unfortunate few experience near-constant head pain. This Special Health Report, Headaches: Relieving and preventing migraines and other headaches, offers in-depth information on the most common kinds of headaches and the treatment strategies that work best for each, including a number of self-help and alternative techniques.

The cause is debated, but most experts believe it starts when a cold substance touches the roof of the mouth or the back of the throat and causes small blood vessels in those areas to constrict and then rapidly dilate. Pain receptors near the blood vessels sense the discomfort and send the message along tiny nerve fibers to a larger nerve (the trigeminal nerve), which forwards it to the brain. The trigeminal nerve also carries pain signals from the face. The brain reads the cold-stimulus sensations as coming from the head rather than the mouth — a phenomenon called referred pain.
Cold-stimulus pain is common, occurring in 30% to 40% of people who don't usually have headaches. The symptoms are harmless and not a sign of any underlying disease, although many experts believe they're more common in people who get migraines. Because ice cream headaches are so short-lived, they're hard to study, and there's no consensus on how to stop them. Most people have their own methods; the most common is to curl the tongue and press the underside against the roof of the mouth. The best way to prevent the headache is to eat very cold foods slowly.

The other types of pain in or around the head

Which brings me to this point. We all have been under pressure, under the weather, or just hit by a sudden storm of pain — virtually all of us have experienced a headache at some point or another. The most common of all are what doctors call “tension-type” headaches, and they can feel like a giant rubber band squeezing your skull, creating soreness in your head, neck and shoulders.

For some, your headache might be a migraine when just one side of your head pulses and throbs, your vision gets a little wonky, or you just start to feel queasy. In this case, it’s best to quietly lie down, relax and call your doctor.

Scientists aren’t 100 percent sure what’s causing that splitting sensation in our heads, recent studies blame overactive or problematic nociceptors.

A nociceptor!

Our bodies have a central nervous system, which is made up of our brain and spinal cord. And all the nerves that extend from that make up our peripheral nervous system. Neurons connect everything like building blocks in our body, from our fingertips to the inner workings of our brain. And whether you’re touching a hot stove or getting a soothing massage, your sensory neurons tell your body to feel pleasure, pain and everything in between.

So remember our friend the nociceptor? Well, he’s responsible for telling your brain that something doesn’t feel good. But nociceptors don’t actually live in your brain. They live in the nerves and muscles all over your body. So during a headache, what’s hurting are the muscles in your head and neck, as well as the membrane around your brain and spinal cord called the meninges. Your brain actually doesn’t hurt — it’s everything around your brain.

A headache can be warning you about another hidden pain or ill

And everything that stresses you out can trigger headaches, like long, restless nights or working too hard. Physical stresses, such as grinding your teeth or having poor posture, can also cause headaches in some. This pain can be around the eyes, behind the eyes, one side of the head, forehead, rear of the head, at the scalp or the entire head. All these parts I have mentioned each have a diagnosis and attendant treatment. Do not suffer alone, seek medical advice about a headache. It could be your headache is also telling you about other bodily pains or ills. 

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