How it Works: brain freezes and why they hurt

Madeline Bombardi

You’re enjoying a delicious, icy-cold strawberry-mango slushy. Then it hits you — a horrible and crippling brain freeze.

Brain freezes, unfortunately, are pretty common. It occurs when you quickly eat or drink something that is very cold. It feels like the most intense headache you’ve ever experienced, but thankfully, it only lasts a few seconds.

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Dwayne Godwin, a neuroscientist and writer for Sciencedaily.com, wrote an article explaining that brain freezes are, in fact, a type of headache.

When something very cold touches the roof of your mouth and the back of your throat, two very important arteries that run just behind the throat become restricted and tighten.

The body responds by sending more blood toward these arteries to warm them up, expanding these arteries. These arteries are known as the anterior cerebral artery and the internal carotid artery.

The anterior cerebral artery is a main artery that runs along the front portion of the brain, and the internal carotid artery is an artery that runs behind the throat, feeding blood to the brain.

So the sudden cold that triggered the contracting of these arteries is then remedied with the shifting increase of blood to said arteries.

This process of contracting and expanding of the arteries happens very quickly. When these arteries contract and expand, they send pain signals to the outermost layer of the brain called the meninges.

The brain itself cannot feel pain or any sensation for that matter. You could poke your own brain and while the hand would experience something squishy, you would have no sensory experience of being poked.

The meninges, however, are thin layers of tissue that protect the brain from the skull. These layers have the capability of feeling pain for the brain.

These two arteries meet near the front portion of the brain. Although the pain is experienced inside the brain, the pain receptors receive the pain at the meninges. This is why you experience the brain freeze in your forehead, temples or near the eyes, rather than at the site of the initial pain.

“The dilating blood vessels stimulate pain receptors temporarily until the temperature shifts back to normal and the blood vessels constrict,” said Don Rojas, a Colorado State University professor of cognitive neuroscience. “This type of pain is very similar to that experienced in many headaches.”

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Graduate student Sydney Thompson said her recommended remedy to quickly cure a brain freeze is to “warm up the roof of my mouth with my tongue and pinch my nose.”

The warmth created in the mouth allows the arteries to return to their normal operating temperature. Once the contraction and dilation stops, the pain signals stop and the brain freeze headache subsides.

So the next time you experience an intense brain freeze, try warming up your mouth by pressing your tongue to the roof of your mouth or drinking a warm beverage.  

Collegian Science Beat Reporter Madeline Bombardi can be reached at news@collegian.com or on Twitter @madelinebombard.