By Howard J. Bennett
Memorial Day is here, so it seems like a good time to consider one of the most important questions of all time. Why do you get a “brain freeze” if you eat ice cream or another cold substance too quickly?
One of the ways heat is transferred is through a process called conduction. This occurs if a cold object comes in contact with a warm object. As far as ice cream is concerned, the cold object is the creamy, mouth-watering substance that is staring at you from a cup or a cone. The warm object is the unsuspecting roof of your mouth, otherwise known as the palate (pal-it).
The pain that results from a brain freeze feels like someone is jabbing you in the forehead with a sharp object. It usually starts ten seconds after exposure to the cold substance and lasts for about 30 seconds, although some people have pain for more than a minute. Not everyone is susceptible to ice cream headaches. However, it does make you wonder about the origin of the famous saying: I scream, you scream, we all SCREAM for ice cream!
But what exactly is happening when ice cream consumption makes an otherwise happy person cringe in pain? If something really cold touches your palate, the change in temperature causes the blood vessels in the area to constrict (get smaller). This, in turn, sets off a reflex that makes the same blood vessels dilate (become bigger) in an attempt to warm the area. Unfortunately, the enlarged blood vessels trigger the pain, which is similar to what happens when people get a migraine headache.
To make matters worse, a glitch occurs when one of your facial nerves signals the brain about what’s been going on. Instead of feeling the pain in your mouth, your brain thinks the pain is coming from your forehead. This is called “referred pain” because the source of the pain is in a different location from where you feel it. (The brain itself is not chilled during an ice cream headache. All the action is taking place in the tissues, blood vessels and nerves in your face.)
During a brain freeze, most people grab their forehead or the bridge of their nose in a futile attempt to stop the pain. As noted above, this doesn’t work is because the source of the trouble is in the roof of your mouth.
So the next time you get a brain freeze, a more effective treatment would be to drink a warm beverage or to try and warm your palate with the bottom of your tongue (it’s warmer than the top, because it hasn’t been chilled by the ice cream you’ve been eating). Better yet, whenever you dig into a bowl of ice cream, eat it slowly so your palate doesn’t get frosty in the first place. This approach will not only prevent a headache, but it will also make your desert last longer!
© 2012 Howard J. Bennett. All Rights Reserved.
(First published in the Washington Post 5/20/11.)
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