Science Has Some Clues About Brain Freeze

A close-up view of strawberry ice cream in a scooper
Michael Phillips/Getty Images

Sharp, sudden, intense. A stabbing pain right in the forehead that sets in moments after you take a big slug of ice water or spoonful of ice cream. But almost as quickly as it arrives, it's gone again and you can return to enjoying your treat. Brain freeze has struck again.

What's going on and why does this phenomenon happen? Science isn't exactly sure. It apparently has something to do with a bundle of nerves — the sphenopalatine ganglion, which sits behind the eyes and nose — being irritated by the temperature change when something very cold hits the soft palate at the roof of your mouth.

Some scientists suggest the brain is trying to protect itself against a sudden change in temperature; by signaling pain, the brain forces you to slow down, thereby giving your body a chance to catch up in assimilating the cold item.

Whatever the reason, there could be more to this annoying quirk. Scientists are hoping that brain freeze will lead to “a better understanding of what a headache is and how to treat it," says neurologist Jason Rosenberg, M.D., former director of the Johns Hopkins Headache Center in Baltimore.

Because they're predictable and fairly easy to trigger in most people, ice cream headaches might be a window into the inner workings of the brain that could lead to better treatments for debilitating conditions such as migraines and cluster headaches.

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This content is provided for informational purposes only and is not intended to provide any expert, professional or specialty advice or recommendations. Readers are urged to consult with their medical providers for all questions.

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