Skip to Accessibility Tools Skip to Content Skip to Footer

Ice Cream Headache’s So-Called Migraine Link

Earlier this summer you probably read a bunch of news stories about research related to that much-dreaded summer companion, the ice cream headache, and its relationship with migraine. Unfortunately, the fuss about this research study is largely misguided. While the research definitely doesn’t tell us anything new about migraine, (it almost seems to go backwards in a weird way) it does identify a potentially useful research tool.

These researchers asked 13 volunteers to drink a cold drink in a specific way to bring about a brain freeze, aka ice cream headache, that sudden headache that sometimes results when you quickly ingest something cold. The researchers observed that ice cream headaches are caused by the expansion of blood vessels and that they end when the blood vessels constrict.

If you’re wondering what any of this has to do with migraine, the answer is very, very little.

It’s nothing new to demonstrate that blood vessels in the brain sometimes expand and contract during a migraine attack. This has been known about the migraine process for years. Importantly, leading migraine researchers no longer believe vascular activitiy is the cause of migraine. Instead they believe it is a process that sometimes happens during an attack. The vascular theory of migraine has been around for hundreds of years, but it is no longer the prevailing theory to explain migraine.

On the up side, the researchers in this study established the possibility of using brain freeze or ice cream headaches for research purposes. Other methods of inducing a migraine attack for research purposes, such as use of medication, can result in side effects that distort research data. Researchers may find it advantageous to have the option of inducing brain freeze or an ice cream headache instead.

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

1. “Changes in Brain’s Blood Flow Could Cause ‘Brain Freeze’,” American Physiological Society, press release, April 22, 2012,, accessed August 23, 2012. 2. Peter Goadsby, “The vascular theory of migraine—a great story wrecked by the facts,” Brain 2009; 132:6-7, accessed August 23, 2012, doi:10.1093/brain/awn321. 3. “‘Ice Cream Headaches’ Might Offer Clues to Migraines,” Health Day, April 22, 2012,


  • Ellen Schnakenberg
    7 years ago

    I’m still not holding my breath on this and am not really sure what it actually shows us. I think we can say it shows this is what can happen during a brain freeze, but not what happens during Migraine. My problem with this study is: They apply cold and see a response, but there is nothing that tells us exactly what caused that response. There is A and there is Z, but what about the rest of the alphabet in between?

    Feeling the same doesn’t mean the same mechanisms are actually at work in Migraine, that is assumed, yes?

    I have GERD. My worst brain freezes actually happen after I’ve swallowed something cold and several seconds or a minute later my hiatal hernia bulges, or it is refluxed into my lower esophagus. While it also causes chest pain/pressure that can be quite severe, there is nothing cold any longer in my mouth or throat – the cold is very low, leading me to think it may be a vagus nerve response that leads to the constriction and pain.

    Yes, I tell people if you want to know what a Migraine feels like, give yourself a brain freeze, then multiply by 5 and make it last hours, days or weeks. That doesn’t mean they are the same, and I personally think that is a stretch at best. JMHO 🙂

    I should add that I still find it also interesting that I can drink something scalding hot and place it in a small “magical spot” in the back of my throat/top of esophagus and I get a momentary relief of Migraine pain. Hmmmm…

  • terri
    7 years ago

    Guess I’m weirder than I thought. I use ice, ice cream, Slurpees, iced coffee, all kinds of cold stuff pressed up against the roof of my mouth (toward the back) to STOP a migraine when it’s coming on.

    The only time I won’t do that is when a headache is starting up around that one nerve in my face (i think it’s the Trigeminal nerve). When it’s one of those, there’s a goofy warning, a tiny shock right up the side of my face sort of like the bzzzt you get if you lick a 9 volt. I only tried ice on that once. I know better now.

    I could have saved them a bunch of money on that study!

  • Melting Sky
    7 years ago

    I recently discovered this myself after googling migraine cures since I really don’t like taking the 40 mg of oxicodone and 2mg of lorezapam it takes to take the edge off my headaches. I saw hundreds of posts claiming that if they give themselves an icecream headache it will kill their migraine. So I skeptically tried it since I figured it couldn’t hurt and to my surprise my migraine went away, or at least went from peak to that bruised throbbing after migraine feeling. It kind of makes sense in a way in that one of the only other things I ever got relief from is an ice cold wet towel wrapped around my head, but the icecream headache works remarkably well. Better than a heavy dose of opiate pain killers and moderately heavy dose of an anti-seizure med.

  • Diana-Lee author
    7 years ago

    Just goes to show how different each individual with migraine is, doesn’t it?! 🙂

  • Poll