Nothing beats the heat like an ice-cold drink, a scoop of ice cream, or other favorite frozen confection. Aside from the calories, most frozen treats have no real downsides — except, perhaps, for “brain freeze.”
In scientific circles, brain freeze is referred to as a “headache attributed to ingestion or inhalation of cold stimulus,” or HICS. Previously, it was called either ice-cream headache or brain freeze. In this post, we’ll refer to it as brain freeze.
Brain freeze is a short-lasting sensation (often fewer than 10 seconds) of "stabbing" pain felt on both sides of the frontal (front) or temporal (temples) regions of the head. In spite of the name, brain freeze isn’t pain in the brain — the brain is devoid of pain receptors. In people susceptible to brain freeze, the sensation is caused by the passage of a cold material, such as solid, liquid, or gas, over the palate, back of the throat, or both.
In the spirit of summer (it’s always summer somewhere), let’s consider eight cool facts about brain freeze.
1. Brain freeze is one of the most common types of headaches experienced, affecting between 5.9 percent and 74 percent of adults and between 38.3 percent and 79 percent of children. In one study, researchers in Taiwan examined 8,359 junior-high students and found that 40.6 percent of these adolescents reported brain freeze.
2. Brain freeze may have a heritable component. Kids who have brain freeze tend to have parents who experience it, too.
3. Some research shows that people who experience brain freeze also tend to experience migraines.
4. In some people, brain freeze happens every time something cold is eaten; thus, some people avoid eating ice cream and other cold stuff altogether.
5. When parents and kids have no history of headache at all, the risk of brain freeze is less.
6. As you can probably guess, the faster a person consumes something cold, the more likely it is that brain freeze will result.
7. The exact mechanisms of brain freeze have yet to be elucidated. Experts hypothesize that brain freeze may be caused by the cooling of the blood in the internal carotid artery and subsequent vasospasm or vasoconstriction in its branches. The internal carotid supplies the head and brain (i.e., Circle of Willis). Vasoconstriction is a temporary narrowing of blood vessels, which can lead to headaches. The trigeminal nerve, which is responsible for sensation in the face, may also be involved. The involvement of the trigeminal nerve could explain why brain freeze is sometimes accompanied by tearing.
8. Some research suggests that women are more likely to experience brain freeze than men. This observation is consistent with the fact that there is a higher prevalence of other types of headaches in women.
On a final note, there’s been some speculation as to why brain freeze appears to be more common in children than in adults. First, children have smaller palates and throats, which are more quickly cooled, with receptors more quickly activated. Second, adults may have increased nerve stability to cold stimuli. Third, adults may have learned to consume cold things more slowly, so as to minimize the risk of brain freeze. (Consider this last point the next time you see a kid enjoying an ice cream cone or slushie.)
Kaczorowski, M, Kaczorowski, J. Ice cream evoked headaches (ICE-H) study: Randomised trial of accelerated versus cautious ice cream eating regimen. BMJ. 2002;325:1445.
Mages S, Hensel O, Zierz AM, Kraya T, Zierz S. Experimental provocation of ‘ice-cream headache’ by ice cubes and ice water. Cephalalgia. 2017;37(5):464-469.
Zierz AM, Mehl T, Kraya T, Wienke A, Zierz S. Ice cream headache in students and family history of headache: a cross-sectional epidemiological study. Journal of Neurology. 2016: 263(6):1106-10.