It might be the middle of winter in South Africa, but who doesn't enjoy an ice-cream? Unfortunately, however, there's one side-effect that none of us enjoys – that fleeting headache known as "brain freeze" we sometimes get when gulping down a cold smoothie or scoop of ice cream.
A bundle of nerves
But a neurologist says you can avoid it. "Brain freeze is what happens when cold food touches a bundle of nerves in the back of the palate," said Dr Stephanie Vertrees, a headache specialist and clinical assistant professor at Texas A&M College of Medicine.
The medical term for brain freeze is sphenopalatine ganglioneuralgia, she said. "The sphenopalatine ganglion is a group of nerves that are sensitive to cold food, and when they're stimulated, they relay information that stimulates a part of the brain to have a headache," Vertrees explained.
This is the same bundle of nerves responsible for migraine headaches and cluster headaches. "There has been a lot of research done on this bundle of nerves, but mostly for trying to prevent these more serious and longer-lasting headaches," she said in a university news release.
Health24 also previously reported on the link between brain freeze and headaches.
While unpleasant, brain freeze ache is unlikely to be harmful. Ice cream headaches are also very fleeting, since the pain subsides as soon as the cold dissipates and the blood flow normalises.
In some cases, Dr Vertrees added, brain freeze could also help treat migraines. "It may not work for everyone or work every time, but giving yourself a brain freeze can possibly alleviate a migraine," she said. Most people, however, would prefer to ease the temporary discomfort associated with brain freeze or avoid it entirely.
'It's about slowing down'
"To avoid brain freeze, eat the cold food much more slowly so that your mouth can warm up the food – don't inhale it," Vertrees said. "Keep it in the front of your mouth: the further-back stimulation is what triggers the brain freeze."
Those who feel a brain freeze coming on can try pressing their tongue to the roof of their mouth to help reduce the pain. The warmth of the tongue can heat up the nasal sinuses and the nerves that make up the sphenopalatine ganglion, according to Vertrees.
"Brain freezes are very self-limiting," she said. "It's about slowing down and being patient and aware of the likelihood of getting a brain freeze if you eat or drink too fast.