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I Scream, You Scream: The Science Behind Brain Freeze

Ah, the brain freeze — the signature pain of summer experienced by anyone who has eaten an ice cream cone with too much enthusiasm or slurped down a slushie a little too quickly.

But have you ever stopped mid-freeze to think about why our bodies react like this?

Well, researchers who study pain have, and some, like Dr. Kris Rau of the University of Louisville, say it’s a good way to understand the basics of how we process damaging stimuli.

But First, a Lesson in Terminology

“There’s a scientific medical term for ice cream headaches which is sphenopalatine ganglion neuralgia,” Rau says.

Try breaking that out at your next ice cream social. Anyway, to understand how brain freeze happens, it helps to think of your body and brain as a big computer where everything is hooked together.

In this case, you see an ice cream truck. You get some ice cream. And then your brain gives you go-ahead and you dive face-first into a double-scoop of mint chocolate chip.

“Now on the roof of your mouth there are a lot of little blood vessels, capillaries,” Rau says. “And there’s a lot of nerve fibers called nociceptors that detect painful or noxious stimuli.”

The rush of cold causes those vessels to constrict.

“And when that happens, it happens so quickly that all of those little pain fibers in the roof of your mouth — they interpret that as being a painful stimulus,” Rau says.

A message is then shot up to your brain via the trigeminal nerve, one of the major nerves of the facial area.

The brain itself doesn’t have any pain sensing fibers, but its covering — called the meninges — does.

“And of course all of those little pain-sensing fibers are hooked up to your trigeminal nerve,” Rau says. “So the brain is trying to figure out what is going on. It knows there is something wrong, something that is painful and they don’t know exactly where it is.”

And the pain message finally registers at the top of your head, which seems kind of random.

“But it’s a very similar phenomenon to the referred pain that is experienced by people who have heart attacks,” Rau says. “You don’t feel like your heart is hurting itself; it’s your shoulder that is starting to hurt on your left side.”

And most importantly, it’s enough to get most people to stop eating the ice cream. Crisis averted.

And after a minute or two, the brain and body go back to normal.

'Without the brain, there would be no pain'

But what about chronic pain that lasts longer? Like days or weeks or months? That’s what Rau’s lab is interested in researching.

Rau says there are a lot of contributing factors for chronic pain; he’s most interested in the long-term effects of tissue damage, for example. But when it comes down to it — just like ice cream headaches — it all involves your brain.

“The brain is what actually interprets all those signals that are coming in and determines whether it is painful or not painful,” Rau says. “So without the brain there would be no pain.”

And knowing the mechanisms behind how your brain processes those signals — and how factors like genetics, race or sex impact those — is a crucial area of research for Rau.

“Most importantly we are starting to develop novel drugs that can be used to treat pain before it even develops and also after it happens,” Ray says.

Those are still in the process of being tested, but in the meantime, let’s return to ice cream for just bit. Rau says there is anecdotal evidence suggesting that ice cream headaches might be an effective treatment for migraines.

It does not work for everyone, and the reasons why it might be effective are unclear, but for those who have to deal with the debilitating effects of migraines, he says it might be worth a tasty shot.