Ask Dr. Monti: How Do You Avoid Ice-Cream Headaches?

Answer from Daniel A. Monti, director of the Jefferson-Myrna Brind Center of Integrative Medicine at Thomas Jefferson University and Hospital

Dr. Monti

Q: What causes ice-cream headaches? And is there a way to avoid them?

A: An ice-cream headache, commonly known as “brain freeze,” is a brief, stabbing head pain commonly associated with quick consumption of cold beverages or foods such as ice cream. These temporary headaches generally last 30-60 seconds and are commonly seen during warm weather months when there is a greater tendency to quickly consume something cold. Most people have experienced an ice-cream headache, though they are more easily triggered in migraine sufferers.

The precise mechanism of an ice-cream headache is unknown. It has been suggested that when very cold foods or beverages come into contact with the soft tissue on the roof of your mouth that the rapid cooling and constriction of the capillaries (small blood vessels) causes momentary restriction of blood flood to the brain. However, some researchers conclude that the pain in the mouth also gets experienced in the head via the trigeminal nerve, which is a major sensory nerve that transmits information about pain from the face and mouth to the brain. Activity along the trigeminal nerve creates discomfort that feels like a headache. It’s a phenomenon called “referred pain,” which means discomfort in an area of the body other than where the problem lies. Hence, with ice-cream headaches, your nerves may function as “pain conductors,” sending signals from your soft palate to your brain.

The best way to prevent an ice-cream headache is to slow the rate at which you consume cold foods and beverages. It’s not necessary to completely avoid them, but moderation is advised, particularly if you are susceptible. Another preventive technique is to simultaneously drink a beverage that is warmer than the cold/frozen food you are enjoying. This will help regulate the temperature of the soft palate while you eat. If, despite your best preventive efforts, you find yourself in the midst of an ice-cream headache, a quick solution is placing your tongue against your soft palate (i.e. the roof of your mouth) to warm the area and open your capillaries. This could minimize the length and severity of the headache. Remember, ice-cream headaches are never longer than a couple minutes. Seek medical attention for any persistent headache of unknown origin.

Dr. Monti is director of the Myrna Brind Center of Integrative Medicine at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital and the author of The Great Life Makeover. Read more about him here. Join Dr. Monti’s Facebook Fan Page and follow him on Twitter @DanielMontiMD.