Here's What Really Causes Brain Freezes

Yes, ice cream rocks. We all scream for it. However, screaming for ice cream is not the same as screaming from ice cream, and those of us who have experienced brain freeze can definitely attest to that. While Business Insider reports that the phenomenon — also known as ice cream headache or sphenopalatine ganglioneuralgia, according to Mental Floss — typically only lasts about 30 seconds, that half a minute can really make you want to, well, scream. Really loudly, because brain freeze hurts.

There's quite a bit about the brain that remains a mystery to modern science. While the causes of brain freeze have been narrowed down, there are some people who simply don't suffer from it, and the "why" behind that tidbit remains a mystery. Here's what we do know: About a third of people are susceptible to brain freeze, particularly those who have migraines. The sensation is an example of "referred pain," which is pain that is felt somewhere different from where the pain-inducing incident occurs. Even though you feel a brain freeze in your head, it actually happens when the roof of your mouth is exposed to something cold. When you eat a super cold bite of ice cream, the blood vessels on your palate involuntarily constrict, which Johns Hopkins Medicine explains is the body's way of maintaining its core temperature. The blood vessels then rebound and send a pain signal to your brain's trigeminal nerve, which is found near the forehead.

Oh, the pain

Because the trigeminal nerve's domain is in the face, the brain interprets the pain signals that are actually coming from your mouth as coming from your forehead, producing the headache-like sensation of brain freeze, explains Mental Floss. There are a few other things that we know about brain freeze. For one, it likely won't happen when you're eating ice cream while shivering outside in the snow. Instead, brain freeze happens in the presence of a warm ambient temperature — or when there's a sharper contrast between the warmth outside and the cold in your mouth.

As for how to avoid or get over a brain freeze, you can eat your ice cream or other cold food slowly, warming it at the front of your mouth before swallowing it. If it happens anyway, you can drink some warm water between bites, press your tongue or thumb to the roof of your mouth, or cup your hands over your mouth and breathe into them. Though brain freeze is unpleasant, it certainly doesn't stop people from enjoying ice pops, milkshakes, or slushes; per the International Dairy Foods Association, the average American eats 23 pounds of frozen desserts annually. The prospect of 30 agonizing seconds is simply not enough to deter us from our creamy cold confections.