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Brain freeze: The agony and ecstasy of ice cream

Bill Briggs writes: Ice cream: you scream, we all scream – with eye-scrunching, table-pounding pain. The dog days of summer mark the high season for sphenopalatine ganglioneuralgia. Or, as you know it: “brain freeze.” A singles scoop of butter brickle or fudge ripple on a steamy afternoon can bathe your taste buds in silky pleasure yet drench your head in instant agony. You want a doctor’s formal opinion? “Excruciating,” said Dr. Eric Lewin Altschuler, a physician and neuroscientist at the University Hospital in Newark, N.J. “It hurts like heck. I’ve gotten them since I was a child. But it’s weird because the pain comes and it goes.” Yet that bizarre ache mimics cluster headaches so closely that Altschuler has spent some time researching everyday brain freezes to better understand cluster headaches, which affect about one in 1,000 people and which can last for hours or weeks. The more serious version – similar to the ice cream variety – tend to be localized in one area of the head and are so intense that some neurologists have called them “the worst pain that humans can experience.” Both types of aches, Altschuler said, seem to involve a part of the brain called the hypothalamus which has many functions, including controlling body temperature. Some medical experts speculate that when you quickly devour or gulp a cold food or beverage, the trigeminal nerve inside your head detects the fresh chill in your mouth then instantly increases blood flow to the brain to help keep it warm. Inside the brain, blood vessels are then, in theory, dilated or expanded which changes blood flow and prompts pain. “That’s possible,” Altschuler said. “But question is: why is the pain so specific? Why don’t you see a circulation problem on both sides of the head?” While the answer to that remains murky, Altschuler agreed that “trigeminal distribution” is likely involved in both brain freezes and cluster headaches. So why does ice cream always seem to strike right behind an eyeball where you have no chance of massaging it away? That's because the trigeminal nerve has three branches that all converge behind the eyes. But Altschuler warns there’s something even bigger and more potent than a single chomp of ice cream that can spark sphenopalatine ganglioneuralgia: “The slushie.” That brand of brain freeze, the doctor said, “is intense.” Tell us about your most memorable brain freeze in the comments. To read more Body Odd posts, click here. You can also find us on Twitter and on Facebook.