On Sunday, a hero was born when a kid absolutely crushed a minor league baseball Icee-drinking contest, then was promptly crushed, in turn, by a major brain freeze. The Memphis Redbirds media team caught the magic on tape, and it is impressive. The boy’s got his hat flipped to the back, one eye on the camera, and the hand-on-the-hip posture of someone who’s accustomed to domination. Unfortunately, eight seconds in, he knows he’s in too deep. Soon after, the brain freeze consumes him. Mascot Rockey the Rockin’ Redbird has to take the Icee away so the kid can crumple into the classic brain freeze pose — the agonized, two-handed head clutch.
When a brain feels like it’s gone full Mr. Freeze, it’s experiencing the rapidly formed headache that results when the brain reacts to a sudden temperature switch. Slurping down something like a fresh Icee changes the temperature at the warm juncture of the internal carotid artery and the anterior cerebral artery in the brain, which is where blood floods into the brain and brain tissue starts. The cold causes the arteries to dilate and contract, and this sensation is interpreted by the brain as pain.
This means that the brain doesn’t feel pain — it actually can’t because it has no pain receptors — but rather perceives pain via receptors on the outer covering of the brain, which is called the meninges. Scientists call this phenomenon “referred pain,” that is, pain that results from the crossing-over of pain signals from one region to another, rather than from pain at the actual source.
Brain freeze agony might also be caused by referred pain from nerve pain at the roof of your mouth, where the Icee hits. The group of nerves that is implicated there is called the sphenopalatine ganglion (hence the scientific name for brain freeze, sphenopalatine ganglioneuralgia), which is the same bundle of nerves that causes general headache pain.
That’s why people who commonly suffer from migraines are more likely to experience brain freeze. Changes to blood flow are thought to be the root of most headache-like pains, whether it’s brain freeze or a migraine. Scientists discovered in 2012 that the influx of blood that occurs when someone has a brain freeze may also add to the pain, because the sudden rush of blood raises the pressure within the skull.
Fortunately, brain freezes defrost eventually, and it’s possible to speed up your recovery time. According to scientists from Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, the best way to do so is to drink something warm to neutralize your mouth’s temperature, or to jam your tongue to the roof of your mouth. Or, if you’re as tough as the heroic Icee Kid, you can ride out the deep freeze like a champ.