Science Questions with Surprising Answers
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Dr. Christopher S. Baird

How does ice cream in your stomach cause a headache?

Category: Health      Published: September 10, 2013

By: Christopher S. Baird, author of The Top 50 Science Questions with Surprising Answers and Associate Professor of Physics at West Texas A&M University

An ice cream headache has nothing to do with your stomach, but is rather the result of the roof of your mouth (your palate) getting cold too quickly. In fact, you can get an ice cream headache before even swallowing the ice cream. Ice cream headaches occur whenever you eat or drink something cold too rapidly, and they last about 20 seconds. Eating cold food slowly can give your palate time to cool down normally and adjust to the low temperatures without causing a headache. According to the Mayo Clinic, the exact mechanism at work in ice cream headaches is not currently known, but it is believed that the headache is a case of referred pain. When the roof of your mouth gets cold too quickly, the pain signal sensed in your mouth is passed on to the trigeminal nerve, which then passes it on to the brain where it is processed and experienced. The trigeminal nerve senses pain from the entire face and forehead, so when it gets overloaded, pain from your mouth seems to be coming from your forehead.

Ice cream headaches can be avoided by eating cold foods slowly, letting the cold food warm up before eating it, or by swishing a bit of the cold food around in your mouth before consuming the rest in order to help your palate adapt. If they do occur, these headaches can be alleviated by pressing your warm tongue against the roof of your mouth to warm it up, or by drinking a warm beverage.

Topics: brain, brain freeze, cold, food, freeze, headache, ice cream, ice cream headache, trigeminal nerve