It’s a hot summer’s day and you can’t wait to tuck into an icy cold slurpy. Without hesitation, you bring it up to your mouth and take a big gulp. Suddenly, pain explodes behind your eyes and you’re left making weird seal noises as you desperately try to make it stop. Brain freezes are a seriously painful downside to ice-cream and other cold snacks, but why do they occur at all?
The proper term for brain freezes is sphenopalatine ganglioneuralgia, which sounds pretty complex, so for the sake of efficiency we’re going to leave it at brain freezes.
When you take that too-big of a mouth full of peanut butter ice-cream and it manages to make contact with the roof of your mouth (also known as your palate) some pretty interesting things happen.
The sudden temperature change of this tissue from toasty mouth warmth to frozen delight temperatures stimulates the nerves in your mouth tissue to warm the area up as quickly as possible. To do so the nerves trigger the surrounding blood vessels to dilate and swell, in an attempt to bring more warm blood into the area.
Unfortunately for us, this doesn’t go exactly to plan. The dilation of these blood vessels triggers the pain receptors also located in the area. In response, the pain receptors release prostaglandins, which further increases the sensitivity to pain, and also produces inflammation. Not only this, but the pain receptors are also still sending signals through to the trigeminal nerve which alerts the brain to the problem.
It doesn’t end here though. The trigeminal nerve, just like everything else in this system, tries its best to do its job – with mixed results. The trigeminal nerve is also responsible for sensing facial pain, so when the signal is passed on to the brain there’s some serious miscommunication, leading to the mouth pain being interpreted as forehead pain instead.
This series of misadventures that is known as a brain freeze usually takes about 10 seconds to start after you’ve cooled the palate, and lasts for around 30 seconds – although at the time it can feel much longer. Luckily for some of us (and very unluckily for others) only about a third of the population is prone to brain freezes, so if you’ve never experienced one don’t worry, you’re not missing out on anything.
But what’s the best way to deal with a brain freeze, you might ask? Well there’s no magic solution. The best thing you can do is cop the initial pain, then keep your mouth cold, as the brain freeze is caused by the change in temperature, not the low temperature itself. If that doesn’t appeal to you as an idea, try pressing your (hopefully slightly) warm tongue against the roof of your brain-freeze-stricken mouth in an attempt to warm it up faster.
There you have it, next time you’re withering in pain because of a brain freeze, just know that it’s down to your body trying to help and making a complete goofball of itself in the process.