Brain freeze. If you have ever experienced that sudden rush of cold and sharp headache when eating ice cream, or a frozen slush, you know the feeling. Now researchers think they know why.
Results of a study presented at the Experimental Biology 2012 meeting in San Diego, CA show that sudden change in brain blood flow may be the cause. Importantly, this research could be a clue in developing effective treatments for more serious headaches like migraines.
Researchers asked a small group of subjects to sip ice water through a straw that was pressed against their upper palette, which triggered the “brain freeze” effect. They found that these headaches are due to the sudden increase in blood flow in the brain’s anterior cerebral artery. When this artery constricts, the brain freeze goes away.
Brain freeze does not affect everyone, however migraine sufferers are more likely to experience this phenomenon than people who don’t have this often-debilitating condition. Researchers think there is a link between brain freeze and other headaches, including combat-related post-traumatic headaches experienced by soldiers.
Study leader Jorge Serrador of Harvard Medical School and the War Related Illness and Injury Study Center of the Veterans Affairs New Jersey Health Care System said this effect may be a form of self-defense for the brain.
"The brain is one of the relatively important organs in the body, and it needs to be working all the time. It's fairly sensitive to temperature, so vasodilation [expansion of blood vessels] might be moving warm blood inside tissue to make sure the brain stays warm," Serrador noted in news release put out by the American Physiological Society.
Migraines affect 29.5 million Americans, according to the National Headache Foundation, with women experiencing them three times as frequently as men. There can be many triggers for migraines, ranging from changes in sleep patterns to medication side effects, certain foods, or extreme noise. According to the Headache Foundation, stress and/or underlying depression are important trigger factors that can be diagnosed and treated. Anti-inflammatory drugs work for some migraine sufferers, but can lead to gastrointestinal side effects.
A study of more than 3,600 U.S. soldiers screened within three months of returning from a year-long combat tour in Iraq were shown to have two to four times the incidence rate of migraine as compared to the general population.
Further research is needed to confirm the results of this new study, but Serrador said that finding ways to control brain blood flow could potentially lead to new treatments for migraines and other debilitating headaches.