Hot summer days tend to bring with them a spike in cases of sphenopalatine ganglioneuralgia. That mouthful is less dangerous than it sounds. It’s more commonly known -- and easier to pronounce -- as brain freeze.
“It’s one of the unfortunate pleasures of summer,” says Dr. Bradley J. Cohen, a neurology specialist with a focus in headaches, pain management and Botox at Neurology Medical Services of Long Island in Garden City.
“The good news,” he says, “is it’s brief and self-limited.” Brain freeze, also called ice-cream headache, cold rush and cold-stimulus headache, is a fleeting sensation.
So what happens?
When you eat or drink something extremely cold on a sweltering day, explains Cohen, nerves at the back of your throat trigger the trigeminal nerve, which is known to cause blood vessels to dilate, or expand. The vessels fill with blood, causing pressure or pain. After this initial response -- which, Cohen says, might be the same in migraines -- the blood vessels constrict and the headache goes away.
“It’s like an explosion or short circuit which causes havoc and that slowly resolves itself,” says Cohen. The whole process could take several seconds to a few minutes. People who experience migraines, he says, might be more susceptible to brain freeze.
How can you make that brain freeze go away?
The temporary headache should pass on its own in a matter of seconds or minutes. But Cohen suggests several ways to make a brain freeze go away faster:
· Touch the roof of your mouth with your tongue
· Eat or drink something warm or at room temperature
· Take some deep breaths or make your breathing more rapid (though not to the point of hyperventilating)
The idea all around is to reverse the extreme and sudden change in temperature caused by that ice cream, frozen yogurt, or icy beverage. Brain freeze can be avoided altogether, says Cohen, by sticking to small sips or bites.
“Volume is important,” he says. “Just try not to inhale what you’re taking in and you’ll be fine.”
Brain freeze research
Jorge Serrador, of Rutgers New Jersey Medical School and the War Related Illness and Injury Study Center in New Jersey, led a 2012 study on brain freeze. The team had participants induce brain freeze by drinking ice water from a straw and observed their bodies’ reactions.
According to a release on the study from the American Physiological Society: “Findings showed that one particular artery, called the anterior cerebral artery, dilated rapidly and flooded the brain with blood in conjunction to when the volunteers felt pain. Soon after this dilation occurred, the same vessel constricted as the volunteers’ pain receded.”
That artery, Serrador says, feeds the front part of the brain, which is why people usually feel a brain freeze right behind the forehead. Serrador’s team used the brain freeze model because the process might be similar to other types of headaches, like “those brought on by the trauma of blast-related combat injuries in soldiers,” and possibly migraines.
“The idea is if we have a better understanding of what is leading up to the development of the pain,” Serrador says, “you can figure out how to interrupt that pathway.”