Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Brain Freeze or Spheno Palatine Gangleoneuralgia

A visit to Jamba Juice yesterday where I drank an original size Caribbean. For me, unused to super gulps and the like, this was a huge drink and by the time I was through it I was very uncomfortable and bloated. The icy cold temperature was refreshing but sucking it through a straw lead to the dreaded brain freeze - a stabbing pain in the forehead that lasts a few seconds. Brain freeze is referred pain caused by a combination of super-cooling the sinus cavities and the trigeminal nerve. My husband calls it the tri-genital nerve because he likes the sound of it. The tri-geminal nerve is undersung for a system that affects most of us every single day. Some facts:

Your brain DOES NOT actually freeze. NO damage is caused by brainfreeze.

• 7-Eleven registered the term "brainfreeze" in 1994 to communicate the painful joy of drinking a frozen Slurpee beverage.

• Brainfreeze is also known as an "Ice Cream Headache", and "Frozen Brain Syndrome"

Some sudies suggest that brainfreeze is more common in people who experience migraines. Raskin and Knittle found this to be the case, with brainfreeze occurring in 93% of migraine sufferers and in only 31% of controls. Other studies found that it's more common in people without migraines. These inconsistencies may be due to differences in subject selection–the subjects of the first study were drawn from a hospital population, whereas the controls in the second were student volunteers. In my case, I have never experienced a headache but can trigger brain freeze almost immedicately by touching something cold to a specific spot on my palate.

What happens? When something really cold touches the palate, the body's response to the cold is to vasoconstrict the peripheral vasculature (to reduce the diameter of blood vessels). This vasoconstriction is in place to reduce blood flow to the area, and thus minimize heat loss to keep warmth in the body. After vasoconstriction, they return to normal status and artery size results in massive dilation (vasodilation) of the arteries that supply the palate (descending palatine arteries). The nerves in the region of the palate (greater and lesser palatine nerves) sense this as pain and transmit the sensation of this pain back to the trigeminal ganglia. This results in pain that is referred to the forehead and below the orbit, other regions from which the trigeminal nerve receives sensation. The pain is not caused by the cold temperature alone, but rather the quick warming of the cold palate.

Here's a trigeminal ditty I wrote for flavor school:

You love ice cream and eat in sprees
But go too fast, you get brain freeze
You love hot foods, eat them with ease,
Your tongues on fire and still you seize
still more hot sauce for your Chinese
and salsa for your plate of peas
Or even for your fine head cheese
Your palate wants a constant tease
And sunshine seems to make you sneeze
It's all trigeminals if you please!!!

The trigeminal nerve has three sections: the opthalmic branch (affecting the eyes), the maxillary branch (affecting the nose) and the mandibular branch which is centered in the mouth. If you eat a bowl of chili you can feel all three areas: your eyes will water, your nose will run and your mouth will burn. Trigeminal nerves in the mouth wrap around the fungiform taste buds and there are three times as many of them as there are taste receptor cells. Supertasters, because they have many more taste receptor cells than non-tasters, are far more affected by chili heat than are tasters are non-tasters and they are less likely to eat hot food.

A frequently experienced tri-geminal affect occurs when you go to the dentist and get aenesthetized. Frequently the tri-geminal nerve is numbed and you are left not knowing where your tongue is. It also feels very thick. This is a very strange phenom to experience and makes you appreciate the presence of all the neural systems which work together to keep you informed of where you start and where you stop.

A few other trigeminal favorites are: the tingle of carbonated beverages; nasal pungenecy of horseradish and mustard; the bite of raw onion and garlic; the cooling sensation of menthol. During flavor schools, I give people a mint to eat and think about and sometimes, a vial of ammonia to quickly sniff. Smelling salts were basically ammonia and a whiff of this really jolts the tri-geminals and gets your attention. Last year in Thailand, watching a long holiday parade in the heat of the day, I was passed a vial of smelling salts which the Thai ladies used to revive themselves and regain focus. A little upper sniff.

The dark side of the trigeminal nerve is it's connection to headaches. I know little of this but hope one day some clever researcher will figure out how to stop the great suffering that many experience.

The picture posted is a watermelon brain from camerge on Flickr. Looks pretty cool doesn't it?

Here's to plenty of ice cream, many slushy cold drinks and little or no spheno palatine gangleoneuralgia

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