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People who live in warm climates frequently experience something that has come to be known as a "brain freeze." You're probably familiar with it. You eat a big spoonful of ice cream, or you chug a frosty soda, and seconds later you experience excruciating pain in the front of your head. 

This phenomenon is well known in medical science. There's even a technical term for it, sphenopalatine ganglioneuralgia. If you nibble at your ice cream or sip your cold drink, the blood vessels in your mouth have time to heat the food or drink so that the blood vessels in your head don't experience a quick change in temperature. But if you eat or drink cold food or drink very quickly, you rapidly change the temperature at the back of your throat, where your internal carotid artery, which supplies blood to your brain, meets your anterior cerebral artery, which is where your brain tissue starts. The cold causes your internal carotid artery to shrink. This puts pressure on the meninges, the outer coating of the brain, which results in intense pain until circulation returns to your internal carotid artery. 

Something similar happens in a "back freeze." When cold food or drink reaches the bottom of your throat, it causes a contraction in your subclavian artery. On the right side of your throat, this artery extends just a little above your clavicle, your collarbone. Cold substances at the base of your throat can cause the subclavian artery to shrink near your spine with a similar effect. However, because there is less blood flow in your subclavian artery that there is in your carotid arteries, it takes longer to get over your "back freeze."

In Russia and other northerly countries, people don't usually get brain freeze or back freeze from eating ice cream. They get it from breathing in cold air. The Russian-language term for a brain freeze translates approximately as a "head freeze." The English-language term brain freeze was coined by a Quaker family who had emigrated to the Soviet Union in their memoirs published in 1937. For countless centuries before the Soviet era, however, people in the Far North had experienced intense pain in winter caused by breathing in cold air. This is the reason many wear scarves over their mouths to give air a chance to warm up with body heat before they breath into their mouths and lungs. Unlike a brain freeze from eating ice cream or from drinking frosty drinks, "head freezes" persist even longer, and they can affect more parts of the head, face, and neck. It is not unusual to have trigeminal neuralgia, intense face pain, when cold air is the cause of the brain or head freeze.

What can you do to prevent these painful experiences of cold in your head, face, neck, and back? Here are some simple suggestions:

  • Don't gulp. Enjoy the taste of the ice cream, milkshake, or soda in your mouth while the small blood vessels warm it up. You'll like the taste better, you can enjoy the flavors and the mouth feel, and you will be much less more likely to experience vascular pain when you swallow.
  • The antidote for cold is warmth. If you have a warm drink, or even a beverage that is "less cold," a quick gulp of warmer fluid can increase the temperature of your mouth so that your arteries recover a little more quickly.
  • When you go outside in freezing cold, cover your mouth and nose. Let your body heat warm the air trapped around your face before you breathe it in.

Brain freeze and back freeze don't do permanent damage, unless you are outdoors and freezing. Take time to enjoy food and drink, and pain from cold will not be a problem.

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