As Summer Marches On, Beware the Dreaded Ice Cream Headache
NEWARK — Gulping down an ice cream cone or any cold treat during a hot summer day can offer the ultimate feeling of gratification; that is until you experience a brain freeze or ice cream headache; that tingling sensation in your head after eating a cold treat too quickly.
While a headache should not be taken lightly, a brain freeze has a more startling than harmful effect. Dr. Loretta Mueller, director of the University Headache Center at The University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey-School of Osteopathic Medicine said the ice cream headache or cold stimulus headache is not an uncommon condition but is more frequent in those who suffer from migraine headaches.
Mueller described an ice cream headache as a stabbing type of headache that usually occurs in the front of the head lasting a half minute or less, the stimulus being the cold food contacting a nerve-filled area on the roof of the mouth. While an ice cream headache may not be detrimental, Mueller said it has been severe enough in kids and adults for them to decrease their intake or abstain from eating ice cream.
"Over the last dozen years of treating headaches, many of my migraine patients will admit to ice cream headaches, but no one has consulted exclusively for this diagnosis,” said Mueller. “This is in contrast with headache types such as cluster, which are associated with excruciating stabbing pains of longer duration, prompting immediate attention."
Studies have been conducted to determine whether placing a cold substance against the roof of the mouth induces a headache. The Neurological Institute, Taipei Veterans General Hospital, National Yang-Ming University School of Medicine in Taipei, Taiwan, in 2003 distributed a self-administered questionnaire to over 8,000 students aged 13-15 to investigate ice cream headache in adolescents. The prevalence of ice cream headache was 40.6 percent. It was significantly higher in boys than girls, and increased with grade. It was further noted that students with migraine had higher frequency of ice cream headache compared with the students without migraine headache.
Dr. Eric Lewin Altschuler, of the UMDNJ-New Jersey Medical School, noted in a letter in the journal Medical Hypotheses, “Using ice cream headache to help physicians experience the pain of and empathize with cluster headache patients,” that if medical students or physicians happen to experience the severe pain of an ice cream headache, this may help them empathize with patients who may have similarly severe, but even longer lasting pain.
"The pain of ice cream headache is sufficiently severe that it can help medical students and physicians appreciate the pain that some of their patients have,” said Altschuler.
In the meantime, enjoy the summer and the traditional cold treats that accompany the season. Just eat them slowly, savoring the taste, and keeping them away from the roof of your mouth.
Media interested in interviewing Dr. Mueller or Dr. Altschuler should contact Terri Guess at 973-972-5000.
UMDNJ is the nation's largest free-standing public health sciences university with more than 5,700 students attending the state's three medical schools, its only dental school, a graduate school of biomedical sciences, a school of health related professions, a school of nursing and its only school of public health, on five campuses. Last year, there were more than two million patient visits to UMDNJ facilities and faculty at campuses in Newark, New Brunswick/Piscataway, Scotch Plains, Camden and Stratford. UMDNJ operates University Hospital, a Level I Trauma Center in Newark, and University Behavioral HealthCare, a mental health and addiction services network.