Why do we get brain freeze and other common unpleasant physical sensations?


woman with stitch

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There are plenty of strange little signals your body sends you to let you know what is — or isn't — going on. But what causes them? And what do they mean? We looked at five of the most common unpleasant physical sensations to discover why they happen.


1. Brain freeze


One of the familiar yet unfortunate drawbacks of those long, hot summer days is brain freeze. But can a better understanding of it help us do away with head pain altogether? Also called "ice cream headache" — or, more technically, sphenopalatine ganglioneuralgia — brain freeze usually occurs when you eat something too cold, too fast. Unsurprisingly, then, it is caused by the exposure of the roof of the mouth to extreme cold. Research has shown that the eye-watering sensation is actually the result of a rapid increase in blood flow through the brain's anterior cerebral artery. Because the brain is such a sensitive organ, it needs to maintain a steady environment. The increased flow may be the body's way of compensating for the sudden cold and regulating its temperature. Drinking warm water reverses the effect and the brain freeze eases. Armed with this discovery, scientists believe developing drugs that prevent the dilation of arteries may help treat headaches, migraines and pain caused by head injuries.


2. Cramp


There you are, getting your sweat on when something pretty unpleasant ups and bites. Cramp can strike anywhere and — if you're not careful — at anytime. Essentially, the pain is caused by a sudden contraction or spasm of muscle, most commonly in the calf. Despite the unpleasantness, more often than not, it is nothing more than an irritation — albeit a painful one. It has been suggested that cramps occur when the nerves that control the muscle (or group of muscles) in question are over-stimulated causing the latter to remain contracted even when we'd like to tell them otherwise. Cramp can occur during exercise because of dehydration, muscle strain or overuse, or from maintaining a particular position too long — yes, cruelly, you can also get cramp by notmoving enough. In other cases, though, it can be more serious. According to the Mayo Clinic, on occasion, cramp can reveal deeper problems — inadequate blood supply, nerve compression, an absence in the body of essential minerals (potassium, calcium and magnesium) or a deficiency in kidney function or thyroid function can all cause cramp. Pregnancy can lead to a decrease in minerals, which can mean cramp in later term. In these cases, doctors may advise mineral supplements to alleviate symptoms. If you experience persistent cramps, seek a doctor's advice as soon as you can.


3. Pins and needles


You might have slept on your arm or sat too long with your legs crossed — either way, you're down a limb for the time being because that part of you has "gone to sleep" and needs a minute to wake up. When blood supply is reduced to a specific area, or the nerves there are compressed or damaged, numbness can occur. When blood cannot supply the nerves with nutrients or the nerves themselves are compromised by external pressure, the signals they usually send to the brain are interrupted. According to Dr. Robert Daroff, the tingling of pins and needles — or paresthesia — is the resetting of that connection as the "neurons re-establish their normal transmission of electrochemical impulses." Usually, the experience is temporary and a shift in position will bring things right back to normal. In other cases — usually where symptoms persist — paresthesia can be more serious. According to WebMD, in combination with pain, itching, numbness, and muscle wasting, it could signify nerve damage — or peripheral neuropathy. This can have a number of causes including physical injury, repetitive stress, infection, absorption of toxins, diseases such as diabetes and lupus, trapped nerves, vitamin deficiencies, alcoholism and many others. Always see your doctor if you experience any unusual symptoms that concern you.


4. Funny bone


Whacking your funny bone is no laughing matter — it can feel like anything from a muscle spasm to a mild electric shock. According to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, the correct name for it is ulnar nerve entrapment or, more specifically, cubital tunnel syndrome. The ulnar nerve runs from the spinal cord in the neck down to the fingers and is the largest unprotected nerve in the body. When it gets to the elbow, the nerve runs under a part of the humerus (the bone in the upper arm) called the medial epicondyle. Here, as it squeezes round the joint, it is at its closest point to the surface and, at such an exposed part of the body, it is open to most bumps and knocks. Injury, fluid buildup and prolonged periods of pressure on the nerve — leaning on the elbows or sleeping with the arm bent — can also compress the nerve and cause tingling or numbness in the fingers. Although getting that "funny bone" jolt shouldn't do any long term damage, constant pressure on your elbows can cause problems. It goes without saying that if you have any unusual bouts of numbness or pain, you should see a doctor.


5. Stitch


Finally, something of a mystery. Runners know all too well how much a stitch can hurt. But just why we get them, doctors are not sure. According to Women's Health, many theories have been put forward — some think that the diaphragm is "pinched" between the compression of running from below and the pressure of expanding lungs above, while others believe the pain comes from the ligaments between the diaphragm and the liver being stretched. According to Dr. Darren Morton, "the world's perhaps most published authority" they are caused by an irritation of the outer lining of the abdomen — the parietal peritoneum. Stitch, Morton has discovered, affects about one in five participants involved in long distance running, which, in large public marathons is a lot of people. It is significantly more common in runners — 10 times more, in fact — than other activities like basketball players or cyclists. Morton’s interest in the subject — before him, very little research had been done into the causes of the condition — means "stitch" now has the more serious academic name of "exercise-related transient abdominal pain," or ETAP. We're sure that will ease your mind while you're doubled up by the road.