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Cold-Stimulus Headache

Brain freeze from an ice cream

We all enjoy a cold treat now and again. It helps us cool off from warmer weather or provides a route to pleasant days when we’d sit with friends and family each enjoying our own desserts. Everyone has a pretty clear idea of what happens if you don’t go slowly on any chilled treat though: an ice cream headache. They aren’t called that because they only happen with ice cream, of course, but they often seem to most readily happen to those of us who indulge in that treat a bit too quickly. The truth is that medical professionals recognize the reaction as a cold-stimulus headache. It happens to everyone when the right events come together and is every bit as painful as it was when you first experienced it yourself. We’re briefly looking into this particular phenomenon as the weather warms and you may be tempted to reach for ice cream again.

Why Does It Ruin Dessert?
Nobody likes a stabbing headache, but a cold-stimulus headache is sometimes compared to a migraine when it comes to pain levels. Mercifully, this kind of headache never lasts as long as a migraine. Cold-stimulus headaches are believed to happen when the palate is subjected to rapid cooling. The leading theory for why this happens is that the cooling causes capillaries in your sinuses to cool and warm quickly. Capillaries constrict in response to cold, but the warming after the initial chill in the problem. Rapidly returning to normal size causes nearby nerves to read it as a source of pain and in turn this impulse passes to the brain. Your brain doesn’t have appropriate nerves everywhere and,¬†as a result, the pain seems to be a headache even when it isn’t. There is another idea on how this happens though.

A Second Look
Instead of capillaries, this idea centers around the anterior cerebral artery. In essence, the chill you put your mouth through triggers your body to increase the flow of blood to your head and brain to ensure it remains warm as a defensive mechanism. This increased blood flow to the brain begins to build up pressure that causes the acute pain that often has us clutching our head briefly. Fortunately, your body has automatic measures in place to ensure the pain stops and the pressure is allowed to drop. The anterior cerebral artery, in turn, constricts to restrict the blood flow and stop the pain. In both theories, the rapid constriction and expansion of blood vessels of some sort is ultimately responsible for causing the pain. It really doesn’t help those who love cold treats any to know why the pain happens.

How Do I Stop The Pain?
Your best bet is still the one your parents likely told you: eat slowly. The human body is fairly good about regulating its internal temperature and can warm the area of your mouth back up easily if you give it a little time between bites or sips. Admittedly, all of us get impatient sometimes so prevention may be the best method, but there are a few tricks for stopping a particularly clingy cold-stimulus headache. One of the best it to have a warmer drink nearby to sip and quickly warm your mouth back up to stop the chill. You can similarly expose your mouth to warmth by breathing through your mouth briefly. Another old trick is to press something warmer against the roof of your mouth, like your thumb or tongue, to warm the palate and stop the headache.

The cold-stimulus headache is a fancy way of referring to the nemesis of ice cream lovers everywhere: the ice cream headache. It is a bodily response to the rapid constriction and expansion of one set of blood vessels or another leading to a form of pressure that the brain senses. The short-lived pain is typically quite intense, but seldom lasts more than a few minutes. This means that you don’t need to worry if you get one of these headaches. It will be gone soon enough and you can get back to enjoying your dessert.

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