Have you ever played the game where you try to finish an icy drink (such as a slurpee/slushie or any extremely cold beverage) as quickly as possible? While you attempted to pull off this foolhardy feat, you probably succumbed to a severe pain in your head, which lasted for around 10 to 20 seconds before spontaneously disappearing, leaving you in the normal state you were before drinking the slurpee. This is a phenomenon that the medical community refers to as sphenopalatine ganglineuralgia, which is more commonly known as the dreaded “brain freeze”. This is an actual disease, which is listed in the International Classification of Headache Disorders and the International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems, where it is described as “Headache attributed to ingestion or inhalation of a cold stimulus.”
- This phenomenon of brain freeze derives itself from the rapid cooling and then rewarming of the sinuses’ capillaries. The extreme cold of the ingested substance causes vasoconstriction (tightening or constricting of the blood vessels) in response to the substance.
- After the substance has been swallowed, the stimulus causing the vasoconstriction has disappeared, leading to a reflex dilation of the blood vessels. The reflex vasodilation, being a rebound phenomenon, is usually larger than the initial dilatation.
- This is sensed by the nociceptors (nerve endings for pain) that are located nearby, and sends efferent impulses back to the brain through the fifth cranial (trigeminal) nerve. The trigeminal nerve also supplies the forehead, and the brain gets confused, interpreting the signals from the sinuses as coming from the head – a phenomenon known as referred pain.
- Brain freeze is usually temporary and resolves spontaneously. You can just opt to wait for the pain to subside, although it may be excruciating. The stimulation of the nerve endings will eventually pass as the temperature and vasodilatation of your sinus blood vessels return to the baseline, so if you have a high tolerance for pain, time will eventually cure the freeze.
- If you cannot afford to wait, you can promote the normalization of the temperatures by sipping warm to lukewarm drinks. Do not try to reverse the freeze by drinking a hot beverage. You will only scald your tongue and this will not, in any way, help you “melt” your brain freeze. Drink as much as you can and try to hold it against the roof of your mouth. You want the warmth to promote vasodilatation and counteract the vasoconstrictive effects of brain freeze.
- If you don’t have any drinks on standby, just hold your tongue firmly against the roof of your mouth. The natural warmth of your tongue should be enough to warm the area back to normal temperatures.
- You can also try to “fool” the brain by massaging the area that suffers the brain freeze. By providing tactile stimulation to the affected area, you can somehow override the pain signals being transmitted to the brain.
The best way to cure brain freeze is not to have it at all. When drinking extremely cold beverages, it’s best for you to drink steadily. The body perceives both the extremes of heat and cold as painful, so avoidance of these stimuli will spare you a lot of pain.