Brain freeze is that terrible pain you get in your forehead or the front of your face when you eat something cold, usually an ice cream. You know that the chilled treat caused the brain freeze, but not why or how. Fortunately the pain goes away just as fast as it came, which you are often thankful for – you can now get on with your ice cream. It’s odd that pain can comes and go so quickly though, especially just from eating food, and its not even like the ice cream even touches the part of the brain that hurts! So whats going on? In this article I’ll explain what causes brain freeze, see if brain freeze causes any actual harm to you, and look at ways to reduce its effects.
The cause of brain freeze is the sudden constriction of blood vessels to the brain, and the consequential increased blood flow to the brain, specifically through the anterior cerebral artery. If you look at the image on the right provided by the University of Rochester, you can see the main blood vessels around the brain, and the anterior cerebral artery goes right through the middle.
There is a lot going on inside the skull, and so things are packed quite closely together. When you eat ice cream or drink something cold, the blood vessels nearest the roof of your mouth will feel the cold, and quickly constrict in reaction to the cold. This constriction reduces blood flow to the brain.
With the brain being such a key organ, the body doesn’t like restricted blood flow to it, and so tries to increase the blood flow. The increased blood flow over compensates, and too much blood is sent to the brain. This causes a large amount of blood to go through the anterior cerebral artery.
It is this increased blood flow through the anterior cerebral artery that causes brain freeze.
This causes pain because the skull is an inflexible closed unit. When the blood flow increases through the anterior cerebral artery, the artery expands, which puts pressure on the brain. The pressure stimulates pain nerves, and you get brain freeze.
Brain freeze is generally considered to be safe, and has no long lasting effects. Scientists are interested in the exact mechanisms of brain freeze because there is thought to be some connection between the mechanisms of brain freeze and migraines, and sometimes even induce brain freezes in volunteers. This wouldn’t be done if it wasn’t completely safe.
Brain freeze is over pretty quickly, so you don’t have much time try and cure it before your body sorts itself out, but the best thing to do to cure brain freeze is put your tongue to the roof of your mouth. This helps to warm up the blood vessels and normalise blood flow as quickly as possible. Alternatively, if you have a warm glass of water/ cup of tea nearby, drink some of it (as long as it isn’t too hot). This will again help warm up your blood vessels.
Brain freeze is caused by an increased blood flow through the anterior cerebral artery, which put pressure on your brain, which causes pain. It is a short lasting effect though, and doesn’t cause any permanent damage. The best thing to reduce brain freeze is put your tongue at the top of your mouth, or drink something warm.
Image courtesy of James
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The cold food constricts blood vessels to the brain. To compensate for this, more blood is pumped through the blood vessels which causes them to expand and put pressure on the brain, which hurts!