Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Why We All Scream When We Get Ice Cream Brain Freeze

By: Ashlie Stevens, July 31, 2017—the salt, NPR

Brain freeze — its technical name is sphenopalatine gangli on neuralgia. This is the signature pain of summer experienced by anyone who has eaten ice cream with too much enthusiasm or slurped down a slushie a little too quickly. It's enough to get most people to stop eating the ice cream all together.

Dr. Kris Rau of the University of Louisville in Kentucky, says it's a good way to understand the basics of how we process damaging stimuli. "Now on the roof of your mouth there are a lot of little blood vessels, capillaries," Rau says. "And there's a lot of nerve fibers called nociceptors that detect painful or noxious stimuli."

The rush of cold causes those vessels to constrict. "And when that happens, it happens so quickly that all of those little pain fibers in the roof of your mouth — they interpret that as being a painful stimulus," Rau says. A message is then shot up to your brain via the trigeminal nerve, one of the major nerves of the facial area.

The brain itself doesn't have any pain sensing fibers, but its covering — called the meninges — does. "And of course all of those little pain-sensing fibers are hooked up to your trigeminal nerve," Rau says. "So the brain is trying to figure out what is going on. It knows there is something wrong, something that is painful and they don't know exactly where it is."

And the pain message finally registers at the top of your head, which seems kind of random. "But it's a very similar phenomenon to the referred pain that is experienced by people who have heart attacks," Rau says. "You don't feel like your heart is hurting itself; it's your shoulder that is starting to hurt on your left side." And after a minute or two, the brain and body go back to normal.

Interestingly, Rau says there is anecdotal evidence suggesting that ice cream headaches might be an effective treatment for migraines. It does not work for everyone, but at least it might be worth a tasty shot!