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The Straight Dope 

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When eating ice cream and sno-cones too fast I often get a "cold headache." What causes this? What would happen if you kept chowing down on those frozen treats? --Chuck Nevitt, Dallas

The standard medical term for this phenomenon is "ice cream headache"--an expression so clear and comprehensible it obviously was settled on by mistake. Probably that accounts for the scarcity of research on the subject. It's easy to bag fat federal contracts for, say, the Hypoglycemia Institute; it's a much tougher proposition for the Clinic for Persons Feeling Vaguely Punk.

Ice cream headache occurs most frequently after you've worked up a sweat or during very hot weather. Typically it occurs when you cram too much cold stuff into the roof of your mouth. It reaches a peak in 25 to 30 seconds that can last from several seconds to a couple minutes. Most people feel it deep in the front of the head, although if the ice cream gets stuck in the vicinity of the tonsils you may feel the pain behind your ears. Cold farther down the throat produces no headache.

The cause of ice cream headache is far from clear. One plausible explanation is that the cold causes constriction of blood vessels near the point of contact, which in turn causes the blood to back up painfully inside the head.

Ice cream headache occurs in maybe a third of the general population but in over 90 percent of migraine sufferers, who feel it in the same place they get migraines. (Many migraine victims take precautions with frozen desserts for just that reason.) Researchers believe migraine and ice cream headaches are physiologically similar, the difference being that migraine sufferers are abnormally sensitive to stimuli the rest of us ignore. As for what would happen if you applied the cold continuously, I imagine a migraine sufferer could give you a pretty graphic description. I don't expect it'd be fun.

Can you explain why placing a sleeping person's hand in a pan of warm water makes them piddle in their pants? In my adolescence I was quite a prankster and this particular trick seemed infallible. --Dave Halonski, Brooklyn, New York

P.S.: Nobody sleeps over at my house anymore.

Lord knows I hate expounding on these loathsome subjects, but as a journalist I feel it is my holy duty. Insofar as it works at all, the pan trick depends on the power of suggestion--simply thinking about water, or in this case dreaming about it, makes you want to go to the bathroom.

The effectiveness of the stunt is a matter of debate. Some urologists scoff at the idea. But other medical types have been known to tell patients having a tough time urinating after rectal surgery to put their hands in warm water. Merely letting the water run in a nearby sink sometimes works too. I tried it once without success, perhaps because my richly deserving would-be victim was dead drunk. But I've gotten too many testimonials from satisfied perpetrators to think the whole thing's a fraud.

The suggestion need not be tactile. Recently I heard a talk by an architect who was trying to deal with the problem of men unable to perform in public rest rooms. His solution was to mount pictures of waterfalls over the urinals.

Audio stimuli work too. I recall a meal I ate once on the upstairs veranda of a popular restaurant. It was delightful except for one thing: underneath the veranda a spigot tinkled steadily into a puddle. I could think of only one thing the entire time. My choices basically were to run to the bathroom every ten minutes or eat dinner with my legs crossed.

All of this makes me think it's lucky we never went to the same summer camp. How embarrassing if I had whizzed in my sleep. How tragic if you'd been strangled in yours.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.

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