What Causes Brain Freeze Headaches?

You may have experienced it yourself. It is a sudden numbing, stabbing pain experienced in the forehead after consuming something very cold. This is known as brain freeze although the correct medical term is sphenopalatine ganglioneuralgia. Brain freeze may be a more popular name, but it also goes by ice cream headache and this makes perfect sense as ice cream is a known culprit of this painful but harmless affliction. Only about a third of the population suffers from it but what causes brain freeze headaches?


The cause:


The pain of brain freeze, which often occurs approximately ten seconds after consuming something very cold is really what we know as referred pain in that its origins or the root of the pain is elsewhere. It happens because the icy coldness touches the roof of the mouth and triggers the surrounding tissues to stimulate nerves. This causes the blood vessels to swell. In a way, this is your body saying that the roof of the mouth is too cold and so, extra blood is needed there to warm it back up.


When blood vessels swell, it also triggers pain receptors which in turn release prostaglandins creating a deeper sensitivity to pain. Pain is essential of course at times as it is your body’s way of letting you know that something is wrong. The message to the brain travels through the trigeminal nerve which has the responsibility of detecting facial pain and in the case of brain freeze, the brain assumes the signal to be coming from the forehead region. So, this is why you feel the effects of your ice cream at this point. Luckily, the effects only last about 20 or 30 seconds, but it may feel like longer.


Typical brain freeze symptoms.


  • Sudden stabbing pain in the forehead
  • Numbing sensation in forehead and face
  • An extreme feeling of coldness in the pallet


Is there any way to prevent brain freeze?


Many people do not suffer from brain freeze, in fact, only one-third of the population appears to suffer from this condition. The best way to deal with it is to eat ice cold items slowly as it is the sudden drop in temperature that causes the pain. Keeping the mouth cold makes sense as well, rather than allowing it to heat up as the danger then is a series of brain freezes. Rubbing the tongue on the pallet can also help in heating the tissue up and may prevent brain freeze.


In some extreme cases, the facial pain may continue and reach a chronic level. An option for those that suffer in this way is a sphenopalatine ganglion nerve block. This procedure is very safe and can be used for many kinds of facial pain. The injection is of minimum invasiveness but does require some sedation.


What causes brain freeze? Well, next time you have an ice cream, remember that it is the sudden drop in temperature that triggers nerve pain but sometimes, this can lead to more chronic facial pain which is more persistent and will require additional treatment.