Cold-stimulus headache

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Cold-stimulus headache
Other names: Ice-cream headache, brain freeze[1][2]
A young girl hastily consuming ice cream, a common cause of cold-stimulus headaches, which are aptly called "brain freezes" or "ice-cream headaches".
Duration20 seconds to 2 minutes depending on severity
CausesQuick consumption of cold foods and beverages or prolonged oral exposure to cold stimuli
TreatmentRemoval of the cold stimulus from the oral cavity and thrusting the tongue towards the tip of the nose or roof of the mouth to relieve pain. Drinking warm water can also ease pain.

A cold-stimulus headache,[3] colloquially known as an ice-cream headache or brain freeze, is a form of brief pain or headache commonly associated with consumption (particularly quick consumption) of cold beverages or foods such as ice cream, popsicles, and snow cones. It is caused by a cold substance touching the roof of the mouth, and is believed to result from a nerve response causing rapid constriction and swelling of blood vessels,[4] "referring" pain from the roof of the mouth to the head.[5][6] The rate of intake for cold foods has been studied as a contributing factor.[1][7] It can also occur during a sudden exposure of unprotected head to cold temperatures, such as by diving into cold water.[8] A cold-stimulus headache is distinct from dentin hypersensitivity, a type of dental pain that can occur under similar circumstances.

Cats and other animals have been observed exhibiting a similar reaction when presented with a similar stimulus.[9]


The term ice-cream headache has been in use since at least January 31, 1937, contained in a journal entry by Rebecca Timbres published in the 1939 book We Didn't Ask Utopia: A Quaker Family in Soviet Russia.[10][non-primary source needed] The first published use of the term brain freeze, in the sense of a cold-stimulus headache, was in 1991.[11][non-primary source needed][lower-alpha 1] 7-Eleven has trademarked the term.[12]

Cause and frequency

A cold-stimulus headache is the direct result of the rapid cooling and rewarming of the capillaries in the sinuses leading to periods of vasoconstriction and vasodilation. A similar, but painless, blood vessel response causes the face to appear "flushed" after being outside on a cold day. In both instances, the low temperature causes the capillaries in the sinuses to constrict and then experience extreme rebound dilation as they warm up again.[13]

In the palate, this dilation is sensed by nearby pain receptors, which then send signals back to the brain via the trigeminal nerve, one of the major nerves of the facial area. This nerve also senses facial pain, so as the neural signals are conducted the brain interprets the pain as coming from the forehead—the same "referred pain" phenomenon seen in heart attacks. Brain-freeze pain may last from a few seconds to a few minutes. Research suggests that the same vascular mechanism and nerve implicated in "brain freeze" cause the aura (sensory disturbance) and pulsatile (throbbing pain) phases of migraines.[14]

It is possible to have a cold-stimulus headache in both hot and cold weather, because the effect relies upon the temperature of the food being consumed rather than that of the environment. Other causes that may mimic the sensation of cold-stimulus headache include that produced when high speed drilling is performed through the inner table of the skull in people undergoing such a procedure in an awake or sedated state.

The trigeminal nerve, shown in yellow, conducts signals from dilating blood vessels in the palate to the brain, which interprets the pain as coming from the forehead.[citation needed]

Anterior cerebral artery theory

Another theory into the cause of cold-stimulus headaches is explained by increased blood flow to the brain through the anterior cerebral artery, which supplies oxygenated blood to most medial portions of the frontal lobes and superior medial parietal lobes. This increase in blood volume and resulting increase in size in this artery is thought to bring on the pain associated with a cold-stimulus headache.[citation needed]

When the anterior cerebral artery constricts, reining in the response to this increased blood volume, the pain disappears. The dilation, then quick constriction, of this blood vessel may be a type of self-defense for the brain.[citation needed]

This inflow of blood cannot be cleared as quickly as it is coming in during the cold-stimulus headache, so the blood flow could raise the pressure inside the skull and induce pain that way. As the intracranial pressure and temperature in the brain rise the blood vessel contracts, and the pressure in the brain is reduced before reaching dangerous levels.[15]


The phenomenon is common enough to have been the subject of research published in the British Medical Journal and Scientific American.[13][14] A study conducted by Maya Kaczorowski demonstrated a higher incidence of headache in subjects consuming an ice cream sample quickly, in less than 5 seconds, vs. those who consumed slowly, taking longer than 30 seconds (27% and 12%, respectively).[1]

According to research by Nigel Bird, Anne MacGregor, and Marcia I. Wilkinson published in the journal Headache, in their study "17% of the migraine patients and 46% of the students developed headache following palatal application or a swallow of ice cream."[16]


  1. The earliest recorded use of the term "brain freeze" (with a different meaning) was in 1968 in a Canadian academic journal.[citation needed]


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Kaczorowski, Maya; Kaczorowski, Janusz (December 21, 2002). "Ice cream evoked headaches (ICE-H) study: randomised trial of accelerated versus cautious ice cream eating regimen". British Medical Journal. 325 (7378): 1445–1446. doi:10.1136/bmj.325.7378.1445. PMC 139031. PMID 12493658.
  2. Jankelowitz, SK.; Zagami, AS. (Dec 2001). "Cold-stimulus headache". Cephalalgia. 21 (10): 1002. doi:10.1046/j.1468-2982.2001.00301.x. PMID 11843876. S2CID 28861589.
  3. Garza, Ivan; Robertson, Carrie E.; Smith, Jonathan H.; Whealy, Mark E. (2022). "102. Headache and other craniofacial pain". In Jankovic, Joseph; Mazziotta, John C.; Pomeroy, Scott L. (eds.). Bradley and Daroff's Neurology in Clinical Practice. Vol. II. Neurological disorders and their management (8th ed.). Edinburgh: Elsevier. p. 1777. ISBN 978-0-323-64261-3. Archived from the original on 2023-06-30. Retrieved 2023-06-12.
  4. "What causes an ice cream headache?". 1 April 2000. Archived from the original on 27 June 2010. Retrieved 10 February 2023.
  5. "Ice cream headaches Causes - Mayo Clinic". Archived from the original on 2013-12-09. Retrieved 2023-02-10.
  6. "Definition of Ice cream headache". Archived from the original on 2014-09-24. Retrieved 2023-02-10.
  7. "The Dairy Education eBook Series - Food Science". University of Guelph. Archived from the original on 2012-07-29. Retrieved 2023-02-10.
  8. "Ice cream headaches - Symptoms and causes". Mayo Clinic. Archived from the original on 2022-03-22. Retrieved 2022-03-22.
  9. "Do Cats Actually Get 'Brain Freeze' When They Eat Cold Treats? - petMD". Archived from the original on 2022-12-01. Retrieved 2023-02-10.
  10. Timbres, Harry; Timbres, Rebecca (1939). "We didn't ask Utopia: a Quaker family in Soviet Russia". Prentice Hall. Retrieved 2013-02-19. But your nose and fingertips get quite numb, though, and if you don't keep rubbing your forehead, you get what we used to call 'an ice cream headache.'
  11. "Confessions of a City Literate". New Hampshire Union Leader. 27 May 1991.
  12. "BRAINFREEZE - Trademark Details". Justia Trademarks. Archived from the original on 2020-06-06. Retrieved 2020-06-06.
  13. 13.0 13.1 Scientific American Mind, 1555–2284, 2008, Vol. 19, Issue 1. "Brain Freeze." Andrews, Mark A., Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine.
  14. 14.0 14.1 Hulihan, Joseph (1997). "Ice cream headache". BMJ. 314 (7091): 1364. doi:10.1136/bmj.314.7091.1364. PMC 2126629. PMID 9161304.
  15. Welsh, Jennifer (22 April 2012). "Cause of Brain Freeze Revealed". Archived from the original on 2019-03-28. Retrieved 2012-04-24.
  16. Bird, Nigel; MacGregor, Anne; Wilkinson, Marcia I. (1992). "Ice cream headache–site, duration, and relationship to migraine". Headache. Wiley-Blackwell. 32 (1): 35–8. doi:10.1111/j.1526-4610.1992.hed3201035.x. PMID 1555929. S2CID 45688979.
  • ICD-10: G44.8021 (ICD-10NA)