What Causes Brain Freeze – Everything You Need To Know

by Feb 9, 20210 comments

Surfing is an adrenaline-fueled sport that often requires more than just skill to ride the waves. You can be physically fit but if you aren’t surf fit, then you can often come in from a session dejected ‘cos you didn’t rip as hard as you know you can. Along with your surf fitness, there are other factors to consider when heading out for a surf.

Some common risk factors include injuries, the cold (and in extreme cases hypothermia) and⁠—surprisingly⁠—brain freeze. Yep, you read that right. Something we normally associate with eating ice cream too quickly is also all too common out in the surf. In this article, we are going in-depth into what causes brain freeze and how it affects surfers. If you are ready, read on! 

WHAT CAUSES BRAIN FREEZE EXACTLY? 

Cold-induced headaches⁠ – more commonly known as brain freeze⁠ – is a type of extreme sensation after exposure to the cold. Known medically as Sphenopalatine Ganglioneuralgia, brain freezes can be caused by exposure of any part of the head but is most commonly experienced when gulping down cold drinks or cold food like ice cream.

Typically a person suffering from brain freeze experiences sharp shooting pain in the head immediately after exposure to a sudden drop in temperature. This jolt will then gradually subside over time with some feeling a sort of pulsating sensation across the forehead. This is harmless pain and does not seem to have long term effects.

WHAT’S GOING ON? A BIT OF THE SCIENCEY STUFF! 

Upon exposure⁠—such as when drinking milkshakes too quickly or when out surfing in freezing temps⁠—your sensory nerves send a “mayday” signal to the brain. The brain then orders the blood vessels to constrict. Then as quickly as it happens, warm blood is then sent through those blood vessels making them swell. That quick constriction and swelling rebound effect are interpreted by the brain as pain.

Our skin, specifically in our head, contains a lot of nerves that are sensory receptors, and it reacts through expanding and contracting hence controlling blood flow. Our body has this default response to temperature – known as thermoregulation. If you have relaxed blood vessels, it will increase the blood flow then it allows the heat to be produced. If you feel cold, your blood vessels will contract and will reduce your blood flow, and thus resulting in a very little amount of heat in your body.

AS SURFERS, WHY DO WE NEED TO KNOW ABOUT BRAIN FREEZE?

As mentioned above, abrupt exposure to the cold ensures a brain freeze will kick in. No ice cream needed! Surfers⁠—or any water sport enthusiasts for that matter⁠—who love to surf in freezing cold waters can be susceptible to this cold headache which can really hurt sometimes!

On its own, brain freeze is pretty much harmless and often gone in under five minutes. But in cold and rough waters, this can seriously impact a surfer’s reaction time. This can be jarring to inexperienced surfers and can stop them dead on the water. Something you wouldn’t want when out in the elements. I’ve had ice cream headaches when I was a grom, that were enough to make me turn around and paddle in to shore! Seriously, repeated duckdives in freezing water can intensify the headache, and can even make you feel a bit nauseous.

Anything that can distract you or make you unable to react for a few solid seconds out in the water can and will increase your risk of injuries. This is especially felt in situations where the water condition is choppy and rough. Knowing what to do in these situations is the key to keeping yourself safe and away from accidents. 

WHAT TEMPERATURES DO WE GET BRAIN FREEZE? 

There are no exact temperatures that trigger brain freeze. The key is the rapid cooling and warming that makes it happen. It’s the sudden change in temperature from a higher temperature to a much lower temperature all of a sudden. The greater the difference in temperature, the higher the possibility of a cold headache kicking in.

HOW CAN YOU PREVENT OR AVOID BRAIN FREEZE? 

Fortunately, brain freezes are non-life-threatening and would happily clear up on their own after a short while. But still, getting one is pretty unpleasant. Here are some things you can do to avoid that nasty cold brain jolt! 

Acclimate
Since a rapid temperature change is what’s triggering your brain freeze, what you want to do is slowly introduce your body to the cold. Before heading out, take a dip in shallow water first, slowly submerging your body. Stay in this position at least until your body gets over the initial shock of the cold. You’ll know it’s done when you can start moving about without the cold shock.

Train Yourself
This is acclamation training but for the long term. Actually teaching your body what to expect when the cold water hits you. Practice surfing in colder and colder waters and see how your body reacts. Then take note of the sensations and visualize them, every time you head out.

When first heading out into the surf, try wetting your hands, feet, and face. This will help speed up your acclimation. As a grommet, I remember seeing the local old boys doing this before heading in for a swim (no wetsuit) in Winter. By getting most of your skin acclimated in the shallow water, if or when brain freeze does hit you, you are near the shore where you can retreat back to safety should anything goes wrong. 

Proper Prep-Work Before Heading Out
Heat up inside-out – drink hot drinks and/or eat hot soup. It’s always a satisfying way to heat up, and a great way to start or end your cold-water surfing sessions.

Eat a healthy meal. An hour or two before you ride your board in the waves, it is important to eat so you have enough energy to sustain your physical activity and help heat up your body too. Basically, your body needs calories to burn to keep you warm and toasty.

Perform a few stretching routines before chasing those cold water waves. It is also a good way to heat up your muscles – Try to pump up your muscles to heat them up a bit.

Keep Moving!

It may sound obvious, but motion generates heat within your muscles. More movement = more heat. This is why we sweat when we do extraneous exercise⁠—to cool our bodies off. This is also the reason why we shiver when we are cold. Our brains send signals to our muscles to twitch in order to generate heat. But this is involuntary and therefore can be very hampering.

What you can do instead is to be in constant motion. Be active by constantly paddling or moving about. With enough motion, your body will start to get warmer making it a bit more comfortable even in freezing cold water.

Wear appropriate protection
Exposure to cold temperatures⁠—whether the water or wind chill⁠—can sap your body heat really quickly. The faster a fluid moves past against your body the faster it can dissipate the heat. This can lead to anything from minor things like brain freeze, to more serious stuff like hypothermia.

FEET: The basic rule is you should go for the thickest boots available. The thickest booties that can be worn for surfing tend to be around 7 to 8 mm thick. I’d advise trying a few different thicknesses of booties in your local surf shop to see which ones feel most comfortable. Some surfers don’t like the feeling of booties, but you do get used to it over time. Generally speaking, the thicker the boot, the less ‘connected’ you feel to your surfboard. It’s all about personal preference at the end of the day.

HANDS: In addition to protecting your tootsies, you’d be advised to invest in some gloves for your hands. In general, the warmest are the ones like mittens – the ones that keep all your fingers together. The downside with mittens is that you do not get the dexterity you would with fingered gloves – similar to booties, this is personal preference. Check out what your local surf shop has in stock and try for yourself. I personally like to wear a thin pair of mitts over a thicker pair of gloves, but try it for yourself and figure out what you like. 

HEAD: To cap things off (see what I did there!) you should grab a well-fitting and properly made surf cap or hood. They not only provide insulation for your noggin while out in frigid waters, but can help keep the sun out of your eyes too – most have a peak on the front part of the hood. Surf caps range from thin 2mm peaked caps, to thick 5mm full-on balaclavas – try a few on at your surf shop, and try to anticipate the lower end of the temperature scale you will be surfing in. A cap will suffice if it’s not super cold, but if you’re surfing on the East Coast of the US in Winter, you’ll probably need a full hood.

After A Cold Water Surf

It may sound crazy but after your warm shower, always rinse yourself with cold water. It will help toughen your skin and your body to adapt to cold temperatures. The cold water will help close your skin pores that were opened because of your hot shower. And it will feel super invigorating too. Over time, you may even learn to love your cold shower!

For further reading on this topic check out the living legend Wif Hof, and grab his book, The Wim Hof Method, here

BEST SURF CAPS AND HOODS

There are a number of options out in the market for surfers to choose from. The design has come a long way since the early days of surfing and some options have been designed specifically to be functional as well as aesthetically pleasing.

Caps are usually used when it is not off the scale freezing! They normally have a peak to prevent the sun going in your eyes – This is particularly handy in Wintertime because the sun can often seem to be “lower in the sky”.

Our recommended surf cap is this O’Neill 2mm Sport Cap

Buy it here

Surfing hoods on the other hand, are essential for surfing in colder temperatures. These act kinda like a full wetsuit for your head. They are made from thicker neoprene which is normally glued and blindstitched. For a more detailed article on wetsuits and neoprene – check out What is Neoprene and Everything You Need to Know About Wetsuits

Most wetsuit hoods are made with one flap that goes inside your wetsuit, and one that makes a seal over the top of your suit. The idea here is to prevent any cold water being able to ‘flush’ into your suit – which can be fricken freezing, trust me!

Our recommended surf hood is this O’neill 3mm Psycho Surf Hood

Buy it here

What works for you is usually a matter of preference. Ask more experienced surfers you may know,  or check out your local surf shop to see which one fits your needs best. The only constant consideration is that the hood should be sized perfectly to your head. It should hug the shape of your head closely without it becoming too uncomfortable. You don’t want it to be too tight and uncomfortable, but at the same time you don’t want it too loose so that it lets water in.

WHAT TO DO WHEN BRAIN FREEZE HITS YOU!

When left alone, brain freeze simply goes away on its own. This can take from between a few seconds to a few minutes. However, there are ways to speed this process up. There are actually 3 methods you can try:

First up is the head tap method. As soon as the jolt hits you, immediately start tapping the back of your head with your hand. The taps should be gentle as to not hurt yourself, yet fairly firm. The taps should be consistent in strength and frequency. Do this until you feel the pain subsiding.

If the head tap doesn’t do the trick, you can try massaging your temples with the palm of your hands or the thumb. Do this in a circular pattern gently, yet firmly. This warms up your temples a bit, and sends off the ‘all good’ signal to your brain. A few seconds with this usually does the trick.

Another method is to apply heat to the roof of your mouth. The hard palate is where you feel ridges at the roof of your mouth. This is directly below the nasal cavity where sensitive facial nerves congregate. Applying heat to this area can warm up the nerves and cause the brain to freeze to subside quicker.

To do this, push your tongue to the roof of your mouth applying even pressure. Press just enough to make as much contact as possible. No need to push hard. Do this until the headache goes away. This method is hands-free which is great if both of your hands are preoccupied such as when paddling or on choppy waters.

Any one of these methods should help ease the pain and make it go away on its own. Luckily though, once you’ve been hit with one brain freeze, the chances are, there won’t be another one coming. At least, not until your next cold water duckdive!

OTHER WAYS TO AVOID GETTING COLD

Protecting your head is all well and good but keep in mind, insulation is a whole-body thing. Hypothermia can set in especially if your core is exposed. That is why picking a good high-quality wetsuit is a must.

Pick a wettie that is at least a 4/3, but ideally a 5/3 – This means, the thickest part of the wetsuit is 5mm thick, and then the arms and parts of the legs are 3mm thick. Generally speaking, the thicker the wetsuit, the warmer it is.

To learn more about neoprene, wetsuits and which thickness is best for which temperature, check out the article we put together on neoprene.

Click here >> What is Neoprene and Everything You Need to Know About Wetsuits 

EAR PLUGS?! 

Another important bit of gear that many people seem to forget about when surfing in cold water is earplugs. For newbies, using earplugs may seem uncomfortable and unnecessary. What I’d say to that is, just do a bit of research on ‘Surfers’ Ear’ and you’ll soon understand how important it is. There’s a high risk of bacterial and viral infection from seawater, and permanent and/or temporary damage to your eardrums due to pressure and exposure to cold waters while surfing. As the old saying goes prevention is better than cure right, so it’s way better to prevent surfers ear by using ear plugs than to have to get the operation to cure it.

You can start with a pair of el cheapo silicon ear plugs at first if you like, but we would recommend a high end pair of Surf Ears – these let sound in but keep the water out -they’re pretty comfortable and also practical to wear too.

Buy a pair here

OTHER TIPS

Packing other stuff wouldn’t hurt too, such as a flask for hot drinks, heating pads to help you warm up quickly after you get out from the water, and a few energy bars for quick calorie burst. Mylar blankets are also great ways to heat up quickly right after a session. These futuristic-looking blankets trap heat like crazy and reflect it back to your body. This efficiently traps your own body heat in a neat little bubble. Maybe a bit of overkill if you are just surfing out the front of your place in Winter, but if you’re in deepest Tasmania, or the Islands off of Scotland they will defo come in handy.

If all this talk of cold water surfing is getting you amped for a trip, check out this rad video below from Torren Martyn and Ishka Folkwell

FINAL THOUGHTS

Cold water surfing can be a lot of fun with the right amount of challenge for surfers looking for something new. Surfing in frigid temperatures is no walk in the park and is a totally different beast from the traditional surfing we know and love – turquoise water, bikinis, boardies and sunscreen! But, with enough knowledge and preparation, small annoyances like brain freeze, can be downright avoided. So what are you waiting for? Grab your thickest wettie, your gloves, booties and hood, and get planning that cold water surf trip!

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