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Cause of ‘brain freeze’ a bit of a mystery, but not to worry

Slowing down while devouring frozen treats can help stave off quick-hitting, brief headaches, UTSW expert says

Brain freeze, which happens more often in children as they eat or drink frozen treats, can be very painful but dissipates fairly quickly and isn't dangerous. (Photo credit: Getty Images)

DALLAS – Aug. 21, 2023 – You’re eating or drinking something frozen, like a snow cone, ice cream, or ice pops – probably a bit too eagerly – and you get one of those sudden-onset, painful headaches known as “brain freeze.” Man, does it hurt, but usually not for long, and it’s not harmful, according to an expert at UT Southwestern Medical Center.

“It is very common and happens more frequently in children,” said Ashley Agan, M.D., Assistant Professor of Otolaryngology – Head & Neck Surgery. “Some studies suggest that patients who experience migraine headaches may be more susceptible to brain freeze headaches. In general, it is a very quick pain that dissipates in minutes.

Ashley Agan, M.D.
Ashley Agan, M.D., is an Assistant Professor of Otolaryngology – Head & Neck Surgery at UT Southwestern Medical Center.

There’s actually a scientific name for this brief distress, also known as a cold-stimulus headache or ice cream headache. It’s sphenopalatine ganglioneuralgia, but brain freeze is much less complicated and more fun to say.

So why does it happen?

The cause of the condition is not fully understood, Dr. Agan said. One hypothesis is that sudden exposure to cold triggers rapid vasoconstriction, or narrowing of blood vessels, followed by vasodilation, or widening of blood vessels. This activates pain receptors in the walls of the blood vessels and sends the pain signal through the sensory nerves of the head and face, translating to the uncomfortable episodes we recognize as brain freeze.

One way to avoid brain freeze is to eat and drink cold items slowly, Dr. Agan said. Hold the substance in the front of your mouth for a few seconds to warm it up before swallowing. When you’re feeling brain freeze, remove the cold trigger and press your tongue or thumb to the roof of your mouth to warm it up. You also can drink warm or room-temperature water.

In addition to swallowing cold foods and beverages, the brain freeze phenomenon can be caused by external triggers, including inhaling freezing air too quickly or diving into cold water. 

About UT Southwestern Medical Center  
UT Southwestern, one of the nation’s premier academic medical centers, integrates pioneering biomedical research with exceptional clinical care and education. The institution’s faculty has received six Nobel Prizes, and includes 26 members of the National Academy of Sciences, 19 members of the National Academy of Medicine, and 14 Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigators. The full-time faculty of more than 2,900 is responsible for groundbreaking medical advances and is committed to translating science-driven research quickly to new clinical treatments. UT Southwestern physicians provide care in more than 80 specialties to more than 100,000 hospitalized patients, more than 360,000 emergency room cases, and oversee nearly 4 million outpatient visits a year.