Brain freeze is the generic name of Sphenopalatine Ganglioneuralgia. It is caused because of the nerves SPG and hence the name. Brain freeze is the sudden sharp headache we experience in our forehead right after we ingest something cold too fast. It is often confused with sensitivity but both of them are completely different. The cause is the sudden temperature drop in our mouth (specifical roof of the mouth) which is sensed by the nerve receptors in the brain. The pain is caused due to the body’s mechanism of neutralizing the cold sensation by sending blood to the brain nerves and hence causing constriction and dilation in nerves.
Brain freezes are just one of the body quirks and a way to tell you to slow down while eating cold stuff, and there is nothing too serious. Brain freezes are not fatal if it ends within 5 minutes. You can try to bring down the temperature of your mouth quickly to cure the pain. Sometimes, the same nerve causes different headache conditions which are likely to be confused with brain freeze but if the pain appears without the symptoms or lasts more than 5 minutes, then it is better to consult the doctor.
What is Sphenopalatine Ganglioneuralgia?
It is a condition when we experience an immediate headache right after we eat something very cold like ice cream or cold drink too fast. Sphenopalatine Ganglionauralgia is a scientific name commonly called brain freeze.
The painful headache usually ends in a few seconds or few minutes sometimes. It is named so because it is caused by sphenopalatine ganglioneuralgia nerves (SPG). These nerves are known to be extremely sensitive to pain and are located behind our nose and it functions to protect our brain.
This is not a rare condition, impatient eaters are now used to these brain freeze and also have their ways to neutralize the pain. One can experience a brain freeze depending upon how they consume the ice drinks/edibles, and how fast can they consume them. Many feel a dull headache while many would complain about sharp needle-like pain in the front part of their head.
The basic reason behind it is when something chilled comes in contact with the palate i.e the upper surface of our mouth. Some physical factors also lead to this like when the weather is hot and also when we eat very quickly.
Even though it’s also called an ‘ice cream headache’, ice cream is not the only one that causes brain freeze, any cold stimulus can cause brain freeze. The cold experienced on top of the mouth is sensed by the receptors in the brain and hence the sensations.The real and scientific reason behind brain freeze is drastic and sudden temperature drop that eventually leads to the sudden change in blood flow in the vessels.
What happens in our brain during the freeze?
‘Brain freeze’ sounds like a nerve is frozen in our brain but it is nothing like it sounds. As we know that SPG nerve is to be blamed for the pain but how does a nerve located in the back of the nose cause a headache, Dwayne Godwin, Ph.D., Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center Neuroscientist explained it as “ Our mouths are highly vascularized, including the tongue, that is why we take our temperatures there. But drinking cold beverage fast doesn’t give the mouth time to absorb the cold very well.”
Consuming something too cold too fast immediately causes a temperature change in the back of the throat, which is the juncture of the internal carotid artery. The carotid artery is responsible for feeding the brain with blood. This sudden temperature change causes the blood vessels to constrict. Narrowing of the blood vessels due to the cold stimulus is a condition called vasoconstriction. Our body sends more blood to warm the affected area, to adjust to this sudden temperature drop, which results in swelling of the vessels. The pain during the brain freeze is a fruit of the construction and the rush of the blood.This pain is sensed by the receptors in the outer covering of the brain called the meningers, the dilation and contraction of the nerves cause sensations that we interpret as pain.
How dangerous is brain freeze?
To begin with, brain freeze is not fatal. It is impossible to die from brain freeze because our body has a quick mechanism to handle these body quirks. It has not been reported to cause any permanent damage either in our brain.
The time of the brain freeze is also too short to cause any damage, 98% of patients with brain freeze experience the pain for less than 5 minutes.
The only possible way by which brain freeze can be harmful would be if your nervous system is not working properly, and the nerves fail to send blood in the affected area, but if you’re nervous system is non-functional, then you cannot experience brain freeze in the first place.
A good thing about body quirks is that we can easily cure them there and then with help of some tricks. You are not required to consult a doctor for this. The treatment is as unique as a cakewalk.
1. When you are suffering from a painful headache from brain freeze, you can touch your tongue on the roof of your mouth till the headache is gone. The tongue will transfer heat to the nerves and quickly neutralize the temperature drop.
2. If the tongue trick is not working, that can be because your entire mouth is of the same temperature the heat transfer is not occurring.
3. You can drink or eat something which is at room temperature or slightly warm.
4. The warm beverage also worked when scientists deliberately induce brain freeze in test patients to study some other headaches caused by the same group of nerves. The warm water immediately neutralized the headache.
5. Most of the time, the headache due to brain freeze does not need a doctor’s concern but if you experience such headache often, then it might be due to some other conditions caused by the same nerve group. One such condition could be cluster headaches.
You might need a doctor’s help if: 1. Your headache lasts more than 5 minutes with or without the cure. 2. If you experience similar pain when the weather is cold, and you haven’t consumed anything cold either.
Department of Biochemistry and Biotechnology
St. Xavier’s College, Ahmedabad