A closer look at acute onset headache secondary to ice cream consumption

By Paul Basilio, MDLinx
Published July 14, 2017

Key Takeaways

On a hot day, a quick headache is often a fair price to pay for a frozen treat. But what exactly is sphenopalatine ganglioneuralgia—more commonly referred to as “brain freeze?”

“A brain freeze is what happens when cold food touches a bundle of nerves in the back of the palate,” said Stephanie Vertrees, MD, Headache Specialist, Neurologist, and Clinical Assistant Professor at the Texas A&M College of Medicine. “The sphenopalatine ganglion (SPG) is a group of nerves that are sensitive to cold food, and when they’re stimulated, they relay information that stimulates a part of the brain to have a headache.”

The SPG is an important bundle of nerves that can also be the source of other types of headaches as well.

“This is the same ganglion that is responsible for migraine headaches and cluster headaches,” Dr. Vertrees said. “There has been a lot of research done on this bundle of nerves, but mostly for trying to prevent these more serious and longer-lasting headaches. We now have two different kinds of devices for the SPG. One device blocks the nerve with a numbing agent, and the other that stimulates it electronically with the goal of eliminating or preventing migraine or cluster headaches from occurring.”

While they may do the job, these approaches are a touch extreme for treating an ice cream headache. However, these links between the different types of headaches can help people who suffer from migraines.

“Many people will try to give themselves a brain freeze to try to break a migraine headache,” Dr. Vertrees said. “It may not work for everyone or work every time, but giving yourself a brain freeze can possibly alleviate a migraine.”

If you find an ice cream headache coming on, it can be helpful to press your tongue to the roof of your mouth. The heat from your tongue will warm up the sinuses behind your nose and then warm the ganglion that caused the brain freeze.

“Brain freezes are not dangerous and very self-limiting,” Dr. Vertrees said. “It’s about slowing down and being patient and aware of the likelihood of getting a brain freeze if you eat or drink too fast.”

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