Just sipping a cool drink or eating an ice cream could cause a splitting headache. It's brain freeze, a common medical condition that one does not need to worry about

The pista ice cream proudly sporting the green wafer looks delicious. It is rock solid — a Himalayan peak in miniature. A quick spoonful into the mouth — aaaaaah! A sharp, shooting pain travels to the head! One moment, I'm enjoying a scoop of ice cream, the next, my mind is numb and my face, scrunched in agony. Did a rare germ survive in the cup to attack the brain? A mini powder bomb? Ah, no, it's the brain freeze.

You've had the dreaded ice-cream headache, right? There you are, biting into an ice candy or sipping a milk shake, and suddenly you are hit with the most awful headache! But don't blame the candy, it's not acting alone. The roof of your mouth, your nerves and blood vessels are involved too!

Change in temperature

“This happens because of the sudden change in temperature at the roof,” explained Dr. L. P. Mohan, dental surgeon. “In medical terms, there's vasodilatation, (dilatation of blood vessels) triggering local pain receptors causing prostaglandins to be released, which cause pain, sensitivity and inflammation at the site of release. This localised pain is taken up by the trigeminal nerve to send signals to the brain. Since the trigeminal nerve senses pain from the entire face through its many branches, the brain interprets the signal of the brain freeze to be coming from the forehead, hence causing discomfort in that region. The attack is called Spenopalatine Ganglioneuralgia — neuro being nerves, algia being pain. Spenopalatine ganglia are the nerves of the palate.” Phew! All of this is a mouthful, so let's stick with “brain freeze!”

Joseph Hulihan put it this way: when something cold touches the roof of the mouth, an alarm goes off. The “cold” signal tells the brain to keep itself warm, and the rush of blood builds up pressure that can lead to a headache. There is dilation of blood vessels, caused by a nerve centre located above the roof of your mouth — when this nerve centre gets cold, it seems to over-react.

The “delicious” pain was unravelled by researchers from Harvard University, the University of Ireland, and the Department of Veterans' Affairs. Volunteers were given ice water (no ice-cream!), and a trans-cranial Doppler measured the rush of blood to the anterior cerebral artery, the part of the brain that funnels oxygen to the frontal lobe.

Funny why it should be called brain freeze. The pain associated with brain freezes is the result of rapid cooling and warming, causing your blood vessels to contract and then dilate quickly. Your body looks at the rapid temperature change in your mouth as an indication of a dangerously cold environment, and so your blood cells contract to conserve body heat. As the substance is swallowed, your blood cells return to their previous size and it is this oscillation that is so painful. If you've noticed, a brain freeze starts after you've swallowed your bite!

Typically, the pain strikes within 10 seconds of the “ice cream attack” and lasts for about 20 seconds (It feels like much longer!). But it may spread to the teeth, warns Dr. Mohan. “Though the teeth are not directly involved in the brain freeze mechanism, the sudden exposure to cold may affect teeth,” he said. “The teeth may go in for a thermal shock — a sharp pain. This affects the vital pulp tissue lying beneath the enamel and dentine. You get ‘teeth freeze.'”

All this is not going to make you swear off ice-cream, no way! You don't have to feel helpless either. “Stop cold food from touching the roof of your mouth,” says Dr. Mohan. “Quickly warm the roof of your mouth with your tongue. (It eases the surge of blood flow to your brain.) Better still, avoid extremely cold food. Or choose a slightly warmer environment. This will reduce the impact of cold food.” And best of all, eat cold foods slowly. Give your “oral environment” time to get used to change in temperature gradually, while you relish the creaminess and the flavour.

CHILL PILLS

* Brain freeze goes away on its own. It's not dangerous and you are not ill.

* Let the bite/sip warm on your tongue before you it touches the roof of your mouth.

* Feel an ice-cream headache coming on? Take a break from the cold food for a minute. Your palate will warm up a bit. Enjoy the rest of your chilly dessert.

* Only a third of people experience brain freeze from eating something cold.

* Most people are susceptible to a related headache from sudden exposure to a very cold climate.