By Dr. Mitchell Hecht
Q: What causes me to get a headache when eating ice cream? — J.W., Lehigh Valley, Pa.
A: Ice cream headaches, also known as a “brain freeze,” are very common and thankfully, very short in duration.
What happens when you eat or drink something really cold is that tiny sensory nerves embedded in the roof of your mouth send a signal to the brain of a very cold temperature. These nerves help to control how much blood flows through the brain.
Cold thus causes the blood vessels in the brain to dilate to increase their blood flow and heat the brain.
The nerves have sent a signal to the brain in error that it’s cold outside.
After a period of time lasting from a few seconds to a few minutes, the brain realizes that the signal was a false alarm and the headache goes away as the blood vessels reduce their dilation.
It seems that the greatest risk of getting these headaches is on a hot day.
Folks who suffer from migraine headaches are more prone to ice cream headaches.
What can be done to prevent them? Avoid cold substances in prolonged contact with the roof of your mouth.
What can be done once you have an ice cream headache?
They usually last only a few minutes, so pain pills are a waste of time.
Warming the roof of your mouth is what works best.
Try pressing your thumb firmly against the roof of your mouth.
Or drink a warm liquid (at least room temperature) to send a signal to the brain that it can reduce blood flow because freezing is not imminent.
Dr. Mitchell Hecht is a Roswell physician specializing in internal medicine. Send questions to him at “Ask Dr. H.”, P.O. Box 767787, Roswell, GA 30076. Personal replies are not possible because of the large volume of mail.