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What causes Ice-cream headaches?

Richard Hall rhall at uvi.edu
Thu Feb 22 08:32:34 EST 1996

In article <4fu8c8$om at atlas.uniserve.com>, ggowland at uniserve.com
(ggowland) wrote:

> It's science project time for my 11 year old daughter's grade 5 class. We
> are trying to put together some information about what the causes the
> pain when you eat something cold too fast. Also we can't seem to find an
> answer as to what this condition is called by the medical community. Any
> and all info would be greatly appreciated.
> Yours truly
> G.Gowland

The internal carotid arteries course near the posterior surface of the oral
pharynx.  From there the carotids pass into the cranial vault providing
blood to the brain.  Several important regions are fed by branches of the
internal carotid including the semilunar ganglion and three major divisions
of the trigeminal.  Several small branches pass medially to the pituitary.
There are extensive anastomoses in cerebral vessels, but the carotid does
supply most of the blood to the anterior and medial cerebral arteries.
These cerebral arteries purvey many of the areas where "ben and jerry's
induced pains" are perceived. Including the meninges which have extensive
pain fibers.  Further, some large cerebral vessels may have pain fibers as
well (ca. lit. cited in Crosby, Humphrey, and Lauer. Correlative Anatomy of
the Nervous System, 1962. Macmillan Co.)  Old but a good starting point if
you have access to Science Citation Index.

It is usually the second or third scoop that get you a stab of pain which
suggests tissue cooling is involved. The pattern of pain perceived is
variable from individual to individual as is the pattern of
vascularization. i suggest that even a degree or two of cooling may be
suffficient to provoke pain or conversely as the vessel rewarm the fibers
may fire.  Alternatively, chilling or rewarming may trigger release of
bradykinin mediated responses sure to irritate even the calmest of pain
fibers. I may try taking anti-inflammatory pills before my next trip to the
Dairy Queen...which we do not have in the Virgin Islands.

Anyway check out the anatomy, it makes for delightful reading. And begin to
think of experiments to test whether gobs of ice cream can indeed lower
blood temperatures sufficiently to irritate meninges. Since your daughter
is 11 she might like to take measurements from skulls lying about some near
by anatomy and physiology laboratory, calculate blood vessel volumes and
flow rates needed to cool the meninges a degree or two, determine heat
capacities for appropriate tissues, make a model, and publish early.

Best wishes

Richard Hall
Comparative Animal Physiologist
Division of Sciences and Mathematics
University of the Virgin Islands
St. Thomas, USVI  00802

rhall at uvi.edu

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