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What Really Causes Brain Freeze? Experts Explain + Share the Thumb Trick That Cures It Fast

Turns out there's an easy way to help ward off future bouts of cold-induced head pain, too

Nothing’s quite as refreshing as a slushie or ice cream cone on a hot, humid day. But these frozen treats can sometimes trigger “brain freeze” — a sharp headache and intense mouth pain. We wanted to know what causes brain freeze, so we connected with doctors to find out. Here, we explore this frosty phenomenon and provide simple tips for quick relief.

What causes brain freeze?

​​​It’s no surprise that cold foods and drinks are the top causes brain freeze. Also known as a cold-induced headache, brain freeze occurs when something extremely cold touches the roof of your mouth. But how exactly does this cause discomfort?

“This rapid cooling causes the blood vessels in your head, especially around the palate, to constrict and narrow,” explains Maryan Hasan, MD, a board-certified internal medicine physician and ZipHealth ambassador. “The constriction of blood vessels triggers pain receptors in the brain, resulting in a stabbing headache.”

Those pain receptors are called the sphenopalatine ganglion nerves. These nerves are located behind the nose, and they’re extremely sensitive. Research backs this up. A study in Physiology found that drinking ice water enhanced circulation to the arteries at the front of the brain and increased blood flow resistance. Translation: When you consume something cold, the temperature change is transferred from the roof of your mouth to the blood vessels and nerves at the front of your brain, triggering head pain.

Tip: If you’re suffering from a true headache caused by steamy summer days rather than cold treat, check out our best tips to ease a heat-induced headache fast.

Symptoms of brain freeze

Mature woman in a white top with her hand to her head experiencing brain freeze
Getty

Brain freeze affects everyone differently and varies in severity, but it’s easy to spot. “The most common symptom of brain freeze is a sudden, intense headache, usually toward the front of your head or forehead,” says Brynna Connor, MD, a board-certified family medicine physician and NorthWestPharmacy.com healthcare ambassador. “Some people also experience pain in the roof of the mouth, where the cold substance made contact with their palate, a throbbing headache and/or a toothache.”

​​​The good news is brain freeze typically resolves quickly. In fact, a study in BMJ found that for the majority of people (59%), these headaches last 10 seconds or less, though they can sometimes linger longer.

3 ways to stop brain freeze fast

If you enjoy cold treats, the question isn’t if you’ll get brain freeze, but when. The good news: These smart tricks can ease the ache fast.

1. Slowly sip warm water

Simple but effective: The next time you eat or drink something frozen, fill a glass with warm (not hot) tap water. If you feel a brain freeze coming on, Dr. Connor says to sip the warm drink slowly. “This increases the temperature inside your mouth so your blood vessels will dilate and decrease in size,” relieving pain, he explains.

2. Press your thumb here

No warm water nearby? No problem! Your own body heat can help. Simply press your tongue or (clean) thumb firmly against the roof of your mouth. Applying light pressure to your upper palate increases the temperature inside your mouth. “This warmth helps relax the constricted blood vessels,” explains Dr. Hasan, allowing the pain to subside.

​​​3. Try the ‘cup and blow’ trick

This aims to heat the roof of your mouth quickly. Cup both hands over your mouth and nose, like you would on a cold winter day. Then exhale quickly and repeatedly into your palms, as if you’re blowing into a paper bag. The warm air reflects off your palms and reenters your mouth, causing a rise in temperature.

Like other strategies, it “creates warmth, relaxing the muscles and blood vessels at the back of the throat,” says Jessica McCarthy, PsyD, a clinical neuropsychologist. “This signals the trigeminal nerve [which sends temperature and pain sensations from the face to the brain] there’s no longer a threat, and the sharp pain quickly fades.”

How to block future bouts of brain freeze

Turns out the old saying “slow and steady” is a great mantra for brain freeze prevention. Knowing that cold fare causes brain freeze, your best bet is to pace yourself. “My advice is to consume cold foods and drinks slowly,” Dr. Hasan says. “Don’t gulp them down too quickly. Going slowly allows your palate time to adjust to the temperature change gradually rather than being shocked all at once.”


For more ways to ease head pain:

Migraine vs Tension Headache: How to Tell the Difference + The Best Way to Speed Relief

MD Reveals the Best Remedies for Headaches That Involve Pain Behind the Eyes

Doctor-Approved Remedies That Ease A Heat-Induced Headache Faster Than Meds

This content is not a substitute for professional medical advice or diagnosis. Always consult your physician before pursuing any treatment plan.

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