Migraine headaches are torture. In addition to pain that seems to worsen with every heartbeat, sufferers often describe disturbing visual changes, nausea, sensitivity to light, sound and smell as well as other symptoms such as neck pain. As Jane Brody has written in The New York Times, a person with a migraine may not be able to carry on life as usual. Symptoms may start a few days before the pain begins, and an unpleasant post-headache syndrome may be troublesome for several days afterwords. The earlier a migraine can be treated, the better the treatment is likely to work. While that holds for migraine medications, it is also true for the home remedies some people find helpful, from sipping something hot and spicy to trying to spark a brain freeze headache.
Why Would Brain Freeze Help Stop Migraine Headaches?
Q. In his book Migraine, Dr. Oliver Sacks says that when migraines develop, they nearly always increase nerve activity first in the sphenopalatine ganglion, a cluster of nerves located at the top of the throat. I infer from this that by “freezing” this nerve cluster, the pattern is diffused. Consequently, the migraine may not continue forming.
As a cranial therapist, I routinely see migraine sufferers benefit from rapidly consuming ice cream. A momentary sharp pain is certainly preferable to debilitating pain that can last for hours.
A. Thank you for your observation. Renowned neurologist Oliver Sacks published his book on migraine in 1970. We have certainly heard from many readers that inducing brain freeze at the first hint of a migraine may avert it.
Doctors sometimes use anesthetic medications to block the sphenopalatine ganglion as a treatment for migraine. Drinking ice water can also stimulate this region of the brain (Cephalalgia, April 2017). That may help explain why inducing brain freeze early in a migraine can stop it from developing further.
Warding Off Migraine Headaches with Iced Coffee:
Q. I have had migraine headaches since the age of 16. I’m now 47.
A doctor friend told me years ago to drink coffee when I felt a migraine coming on, as caffeine is a main ingredient in some migraine medicines. Coffee worked a little, but what really worked is Starbucks iced coffee.
Haagen Dazs coffee ice cream eaten very fast works even better than the iced drink. For me, it seems that the combination of cold ice cream and caffeine ends the migraine instantly.
The Power of Ice Cream or a Milkshake:
A. You are not the only migraine sufferer who has found that an iced drink or ice cream, especially with some caffeine in it, can stop a migraine cold. Nobody knows quite why this works, although perhaps it contributes to neuromodulation. Several researchers are considering non-invasive neuromodulation as a promising approach for treating migraine headaches (Diener et al, The Lancet. Neurology, Oct. 2015).
Some people find that it works best if you can induce “brain freeze,” but that may not always be necessary. Readers have had success in thwarting migraine headaches by drinking a cold milkshake at the first hint of symptoms. Others prefer an iced caffeinated beverage, such as a Frappuccino®.
Deborah shared her experience:
“Fortunately for me, there is a coffee shop next door. I don’t care for frozen coffee, and, when you’re nauseous, it’s difficult to force something you don’t want. So, I order a frozen chai tea with a shot of espresso. This has worked for me often to stop migraine headaches.”
Caffeine and Headaches:
It is fascinating that so many readers find caffeine helpful in avoiding migraines. Most of the medical literature suggests that caffeine, like chocolate and alcohol, serves to trigger these episodes (Zaeem, Zhou & Dilli, Current Neurology and Neuroscience Reports, Nov. 2016). On the other hand, caffeine withdrawal can trigger headaches (Martin & Vij, Headache, Oct. 2016). This suggest that each person needs to determine whether caffeine is more helpful or harmful when it comes to preventing migraine headaches.
For more information on migraine headaches, you may wish to read our Guide to Headaches and Migraines or listen to our interview with Dr. Jennifer Kriegler, Director of the Headache Medicine Fellowship at the Cleveland Clinic.