Virginia Tech neuroscientist explains the dreaded ‘brain freeze’

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The dreaded brain freeze. It’s that feeling you get when you eat or drink a cold treat too fast. It’s also known as the ice cream headache.

“The medical term for ice cream headache is sphenopalatine ganglioneuralgia,” said Dr. Kris Rau, a neuroscientist with Virginia Tech’s School of Medicine. “Not sure how often that comes up on trivial pursuit.”

Rau says it’s something that just about everyone experiences, but few stop to wonder why. So as the weather heats up and the ice cream trucks get out on the road, he’s breaking it down.

“It’s essentially a barrage of signals up to your brain and, unfortunately, your brain interprets that as pain,” he told WTOP.

Dr. Rau says a brain freeze is simply your body trying to regulate the temperature upstairs when it detects a cold sensation.

“The way that it does this is by increasing the flow of that warm blood to those particular regions of the head,” Dr. Rau explained. “Your gonna have an expansion of blood vessels in the roof of your mouth, which happens very rapidly.”

It’s that expansion of the blood vessels that hurts (a lot) for 30 seconds, or so. But, he adds, the good news is that sensation is harmless, even if it is unpleasant.

“The temperature of ice cream, or a slushie, or other cold treats we eat is not low enough to cause any harm like tissue damage,” Dr. Rau said. “Now, there are really cold things, like dry ice, that CAN hurt you … But you’re likely not ingesting that.”

Most importantly, with summer around the corner, Dr. Rau says you shouldn’t let fear of a brain freeze ruin your fun.

“I just hope everyone enjoys their summer. And certainly don’t avoid having that ice cream and those popsicles. I definitely think that it’s a sign you’re having fun if you get one.”

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Matt Kaufax

A Northern Virginia native who grew up in Alexandria, Virginia, Matt is thrilled to be back home in the D.C. metro area covering news for a station he grew up listening to. Keeping the community he calls home informed about the day's events is something he considers an honor and privilege.

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