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60-Second Health

Blood Flow Fingered in Ice Cream Headaches

The anterior cerebral artery widens just before brain freeze, sending warming blood to the brain but increasing the pressure to painful levels. Katherine Harmon reports

The infamous ice cream headache has been a bit of a medical mystery. Until recently.

In a new study, researchers watched blood flow in volunteers' brains as they sipped ice water through a straw—which they aimed at the top of their mouths, a trick that triggers brain freeze quickly.

Subjects alerted the scientists when they felt the brain pain, and again when it subsided.

The researchers saw that the anterior cerebral artery widened just before the subjects got the headache, and it contracted just as the pain started to pass.

This artery was likely bringing extra blood to the brain in an effort to keep it warm. Which means that pressure from the extra fluid inside the skull could be to blame for the passing pain. The results were presented at the Experimental Biology 2012 annual meeting. [Melissa Mary Blatt, et al., "Cerebral Vascular Blood Flow Changes During 'Brain Freeze'"]

These findings might also lead to ways to prevent the onset of migraines or more serious, traumatic brain injury-related headaches.

In the meantime, take it slow when tempted to inhale those cool summertime treats. Consider yourself warmed. I mean warned.

—Katherine Harmon

[The above text is a transcript of this podcast.]

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