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August 20, 2017
By Susan Callahan, Associate Editor and Featured Columnist
Ice cream headaches are a form of punishment that belongs in Dante's
Inferno. Who could make this up? In a world consistently more
disappointing than not, one of the few things that never fails to
disappoint, even as we get older, is the sheer delight of eating ice
cream. I once built a whole vacation around sampling different kinds of
ice cream. To be denied this simple pleasure is just plain cruel. Yet
many are denied even this simple pleasure. For some unlucky people,
eating a scoop of ice cream triggers an excruciating headache.
What causes an ice cream headache? Does having an ice cream
headache put you at higher risk for other conditions such as stroke? Is
there any way to prevent ice cream headaches without having to give
up ice cream?
The Science Behind Ice Cream Headaches
How does an ice cream headache happen?
In your mouth, you have many pain receptors as you well know after a
visit to the dentist. But a large concentration of pain receptors are
located on the roof of your mouth and at the back of your throat.
You also have nerves both in your mouth and in your face. The largest
nerve in your face is the trigeminal nerve. The word "trigeminal", like
the word "Gemini" contains the root "gemin" which means "twin".
Thus, trigeminal means "three twins". The three branches of the
trigeminal nerve run like train tracks from your brain to your face, from
your brain to your upper jaw and from your brain to your lower jaw.
When you eat something cold and it touches the roof of your mouth or
the pain receptors at the back of your throat, these receptors register
"cold". If the nerves are not hypersensitive or the cold is not too
intense, then that "cold" feeling is pleasurable. But in some cases, the
receptors that register the sensation of "cold" are unable to handle the
load, and they register the feeling as "pain".
The blood vessels in your mouth constrict, much like what happens
when you squeeze a garden hose.
That is a sign of trouble for the brain. The trigeminal nerve, which is a
part of your face, picks up the signal from the pain receptors in your
mouth, and sends a signal to the brain that "pain" is sensed. The brain,
believing that your face is too cold, responds by opening the blood
vessels wider. The swelling of the brain vessels causes a headache.
Why are ire cream headaches so painful?
Your brain has five cranial nerves. The trigeminal nerve is the largest.
So, when the trigeminal nerve senses "pain", it's the most severe pain
we humans can feel.
Ice cream headaches usually last several minutes, some of the longest
minutes of your life.
It's Not Just Ice Cream That Triggers These Headaches
Most people who experience ice cream headaches also are sensitive to
eating other cold foods. They often can't take ice cubes in their drinks.
They can't eat cold vegetables in a salad or drink cold slurpees.
Any of these can trigger ice cream headaches.
How Many People Experience Ice Cream Headaches?
In 2003, scientists from Taiwan's Taipei Veterans General Hospital,
National Yang-Ming University School of Medicine, conducted an
important study of ice cream headaches. They surveyed 8,789 students
aged 13 to 15 from 6 high schools.
What they found was surprising. A full 40.1% of students experience
ice cream headaches. Boys experienced the headaches more than girls.
But the students who experienced ice cream headaches the most were
those who suffered from migraines. Of these, 55.2% experienced ice
cream headaches. This study and several others reach the conclusion
that ice cream can trigger migraines.
However, other studies disagree. For example, a study in 1992 from
City of London Migraine Clinic, England, examined 70 patients from the
Clinic and 50 medical and dental students from Queen Mary and
They then gave each participant a swallow of ice cream. Of the
participants with a history of migraines, only 17% experienced ice
cream headaches. Of the other participants , 46% had ice cream
headaches after eating ice cream.
How to Prevent Ice Cream Headaches
The key to preventing ice cream headaches is to prevent the
constriction of blood vessels in the roof of the mouth and back of the
Curl Your Tongue
You can curl your tongue and place it against the roof of your mouth
after the ice cream hits your tongue. This will protect the roof of the
mouth, preventing it from directly touching the ice cream.
Eat Ice Cream Slowly
If you eat ice cream very slowly, the blood vessels are not as "shocked"
by the cold. As a result, they will not constrict severely, which will avoid
getting the trigeminal nerve involved in the act.
Hold the ice Cream in Your Mouth a Bit Before You Swallow
This works for some people. Hold the ice cream in you mouth a moment
longer than usual before swallowing. This works because the pain
receptors in the back of the throat are not triggered.
Drink Room-Temperature or Warm Water
Warming up the roof of your mouth before you eat ice cream can also
prevent the constriction of blood vessels in your mouth.
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|Eating very slowly can prevent ice cream
headaches in many cases.