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Everything you need to know about sphenopalatine ganglioneuralgia

by Jason Bittel, The Washington Post | July 26, 2021 at 1:56 a.m.
Harry Recor, 8, and his brother Oscar, 5, take bites out of their Loblolly ice cream cones in Little Rock. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Staci Vandagriff)

Who hasn't had a delicious milkshake, popsicle or ice cream cone interrupted by the summertime curse known as a "brain freeze"?

The pain starts on the roof of your mouth and within an instant feels like lightning in your skull. Then — poof! — the discomfort disappears.

The pain caused by a brain freeze, or ice cream headache, is fleeting but that doesn't mean it's not real. In fact, doctors have an official name for the unpleasant condition -- sphenopalatine ganglioneuralgia (sfeh-nuh-pa-luh-teen gang-glee-o-nur-al-juh).

So, what's going on inside your head during sphenopalatine ganglioneuralgia?

"You can think of it almost like a cramp," says Wojtek Mydlarz of Bethesda, Md., director of head and neck surgery at Johns Hopkins Medicine. "When you move too quickly, you might get a little strain or sharp pain."

And when we gobble ice cream, it surprises your body.

"You're shocking your throat, your palate and your tongue from the cold, especially when it's hot outside," Mydlarz says.

In response to the coldness, blood vessels in the roof of your mouth tighten while the trigeminal (try-jeh-muh-nuhl) nerve sends a message to your brain saying that the body needs to turn up the thermostat. The brain responds by sending warm blood to your mouth, loosening the blood vessels there.

When your body recovers from the cold exposure and tightening of blood vessels, "that's when you get that very sharp headache," Mydlarz says.

A few tricks can make ice cream headaches go away faster. First, you should put down the tasty treat for a minute, because taking another bite or slurp will make matters worse.

Next, press your tongue against the roof of your mouth. Its warmth is thought to help your blood vessels return to normal.

While it all might seem silly — giving yourself pain over a dessert — there's evidence that brain freezes are related to more serious conditions. For instance, people who get the intense headaches called migraines are also more likely to get ice cream headaches.

Of course, fear of brain freezes shouldn't keep you from enjoying an ice-cold treat on a hot day. Mydlarz loves a big bowl of coffee-flavored ice cream now and then, and he's a medical expert. But he says we need to listen to our bodies when they're trying to tell us something. "Your head is saying, 'Stop. Slow down. Give me time to adjust.'"

Print Headline: Brain freeze easily ended with tongue

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