Ice cream’s not-so-sweet side

By • Published: July 10th, 2010
Category: Health in a Heartbeat

I scream. You scream. We all scream when the ice cream we’re eating leaves us with a searing headache, or what most of us refer to as a brain freeze. It is a stabbing type of pain that lasts ten to twenty seconds and interrupts you as you try to enjoy that three-scoop banana split covered in chocolate sauce and cherries.

It may sound like summertime playground fodder, but the brain freeze phenomenon has been scientifically researched. One study reported that ice cream is the most common cause of head pain, occurring in one-third of a randomly selected population. Another study by a young school student in Canada found that eating ice cream rapidly more than doubled the likelihood of developing ice cream headache among middle-school students.

So here’s the scoop on what happens when something very cold touches the roof of your mouth: The cold temperature sets off a nerve response causing rapid dilation and swelling of blood vessels. The quick swelling is what causes your head to pound and hurt.

Studies into whether ice cream headache is more common in people who experience migraine have been conflicting, though. One study published in the London journal Churchill Livingstone found that ice cream headaches occurred in ninety-three percent of migraine sufferers and in only thirty-one percent of the control group. However, a study published later in the journal Headache reported pain triggered by a cold stimulus was more common in people who don’t get migraines.

Whether you suffer from migraine headaches or not, if you want to prevent ice cream headaches, slow down a little when you eat those cold treats. After all, a banana split is meant to be enjoyed bite by bite.