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"Ice cream headaches" are caused by overstimulating nerves, blood vessels and muscle fibers located in upper mouth and throat tissues.
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"Ice cream headaches" are caused by overstimulating nerves, blood vessels and muscle fibers located in upper mouth and throat tissues.
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Robert Smith, MD, founder of the UC Headache Center
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Publish Date: 05/02/06
Media Contact: AHC Public Relations, (513) 558-4553
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UC HEALTH LINE: Don't Let Ice Cream Make You Scream

Trees are in bud, flowers are blooming—and seasonal ice cream stores have reopened.

It must be spring!

But beware. With more ice cream and other frozen treats comes an increase in the dreaded "ice cream headache."

According to Robert Smith, MD, a headache expert at the University of Cincinnati Academic Health Center, ice cream headaches have been reported in medical literature since the 1850s.

The headache occurs when ice cream, ice or frozen food or drink is held in the top of the mouth even for just a few seconds.

The tissues in the back of the upper mouth and throat, Dr. Smith explains, contain a dense cluster of nerves—known as the trigeminal and upper cervical nerves—blood vessels and muscle fibers. Overstimulating them by cold, which includes diving into icy cold water, can cause migraine, tension and cluster headaches.

For those of us not into sub-zero sports, just eating ice cream quickly can result in extreme pain in the head, soft palate and throat.

Between 30 and 40 percent of people who don’t normally suffer from headache experience the ice cream version, Dr. Smith says. Migraine sufferers, particularly those who get severe attacks, are even more prone to them.

An ice cream headache generally develops rapidly as a severe stabbing pain in both temples or in the middle of the forehead. Luckily it usually doesn’t last longer than five minutes.

Migraine sufferers may feel the pain on one side, and it may trigger a full-blown migraine. The fact that ice cream headaches occur more often in migraine patients suggests that local throat stimulation penetrates deep into the nervous system.

The best way to prevent ice cream headaches and related migraines, says Dr. Smith, is to avoid large mouthfuls of ice cream or cold drinks.

"Eat slowly and exercise caution while eating ice cream, especially if you’re a migraine sufferer," he says.

Founder of UC’s first headache center, Dr. Smith, now professor emeritus of family medicine, has conducted 30 years of headache research.



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