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Body Quirks

June 23, 2012
By GLYNIS VALENTI - Staff Writer ( , Times Leader

Scenario one: The temperature is hovering around 94 degrees, and, after a morning of mowing the lawn and pulling weeds, you settle back in your chaise lounge under the shade tree with a big bowl of your favorite ice cream (or a tall, tall glass of iced tea). Oh, yeah. . .oh, no-o-o-o - sphenopalitine ganglioneuralgia! Brain freeze.

New research results from Harvard University find that "freezing the brain" is exactly what the body is trying to prevent. When very cold food or liquid touches the upper palates (roof of the mouth), blood vessels there contract as a reflex. Immediately following that, they expand (vasodilation), sending blood to the area to warm the mouth. The body, protecting its "master organ" the brain, also sends an increased flow of blood through the anterior cerebral artery in an effort to keep it warm. This artery is located behind the eyes in the middle of the brain. It seems to be this additional blood flow that creates pressure within the containment of the skull and thus the headache.

There is some good news about this painful condition, though. First, brain freeze only lasts between 30 and 60 seconds. Second, the "ice cream" headache is not dangerous or debilitating. Third, there are ways to alleviate or prevent brain freeze.

On hot days, filling your mouth with an icy cold substance may be too drastic a contrast to an overheated body temperature. Sipping rather than guzzling will decrease the chances of a headache, and diverting the food or beverage from hitting the roof of the mouth immediately can be enough to prevent it. If it does occur, sip warm or room temperature water to warm the mouth. Others have found that rolling the tongue and pressing the underside (warmer side) of the tongue on the roof of the mouth will diminish the blood flow and pain.

Additionally, this research has given doctors a new avenue to consider in the treatment of migraines. Since migraines are unpredictable, and brain freeze headaches are easily triggered and relieved, this course of research may prove very useful in discovering headache treatments and triggers.

Scenario two: It was a full day of meetings and phone calls. You managed to get into an evening workout class, but ended up nibbling on junk food and coffee throughout the day and settled for a frozen dinner and a beer tonight. You crawled into bed, sinking into the covers and into deep sleep. Aarrrgghhhh! You dazedly swing your legs off the bed, ease your body up and try to walk off the charley horse that has just seized your leg.

Stress on the legs from vigorous exercise or sitting for long periods, dehydration and lack of some vital minerals creates the perfect storm for spasms, the sudden and severe contraction of a muscle. It can actually happen with any muscle, but the most common are leg muscles, usually those crossing two joints: calf, across the ankle and knee, and hamstrings and quadriceps, both crossing the knee and hip. This tightening can last anywhere from a few seconds to several minutes and may be felt for hours afterwards. Regular "charley horse" cramps are common and not life threatening, but those who have recurring leg cramps should discuss it with a doctor to determine any mineral deficiencies, dehydration issues or irritated nerves, or talk to a personal trainer about exercise techniques or alternatives.

"Weekend warriors" can be prone to charley horses especially if they are sedentary most of the week. Overworking muscles in intense bursts of activity can injure them and make them more susceptible to cramps. On the flip side, not enough activity - sitting behind a desk, computer or television for the bulk of the day - is just as destructive to muscles. Taking a 20 minute walk at lunch, standing up during phone calls or using a treadmill or exercise bike while watching TV will not only strengthen leg and foot muscles, but burn calories, too. Those who are overweight have a higher incidence of leg cramps.

The most common cause of charley horses is dehydration. The body needs fluids to keep cells functioning properly and wash out toxins and waste products. If you're sweating, you're losing water. This means Zumba classes and jogging, but also means painting the house, mowing the lawn or sunning by the pool. Replenishing the water seeping from your pores is crucial to staying healthy.

Research has found that low levels of potassium and/or calcium can also cause cramping. Adding orange juice, bananas and tomatoes to your diet will increase potassium. Many products contain calcium or are fortified with calcium: yogurt, cottage cheese, cheeses, milk or almond milk.

When experiencing a charley horse, massage the area or try to stretch the muscle by walking or by facing a wall and leaning your upper body toward the wall with the affected leg extended behind you. Some people find that heat on the muscle immediately after the spasm then following it up with ice is helpful. Usually walking and stretching take care of a charley horse.

To prevent them, stretch thoroughly before and after exercise and before going to bed. Make sure to drink plenty of water during exercise and other activities and try to limit caffeine and alcohol if you are going to be more active (both dehydrate the body). Eat a balanced diet or take adequate vitamin supplements.

Scenario three: Having dinner in a new restaurant, you notice the menu looks familiar. A woman at the next table laughs, and you have an eerie feeling you've witnessed this before. As the waiter approaches, you know he's going to tell you that the kitchen has run out of the lasagna special - and he does - and hear yourself ordering the ravioli as if this is the second time this scene has taken place. You wonder, "Am I psychic?" More likely it's deja vu.

Estimates by various surveys and researchers say that at least 33 percent and possibly as high as 96 percent of humans experience deja vu, French for "already seen." A French psychic researcher, Emile Boirac, named the phenomenon in 1876 when it was linked with the paranormal. Though the actual mechanics of it are still unknown, scientists have ruled out psychic activity in favor of a neurological glitch that, in itself, is harmless but does tend to occur often in patients with temporal lobe epilepsy.

One of the most probable theories is that there is a sort of short-circuit in the memory storage areas of the brain. As the brain takes in sensory information, it usually sends it to short-term memory as it happens, thus humans experience the now. After the experience, it goes into long-term memory storage to recall later. Scientists think that one explanation is that the sensory information by-passes the short-term memory area and heads directly for long-term memory. This creates the unsettling and surreal feeling of "remembering" the present as it happens. There are also emerging theories on recognition and how the brain handles familiarity.

As far as triggering the sensation, researchers say certain pieces of memories - places, situations, conversations - may cause the brain to weave the past and present together. Doctors have also seen the combination of prescription medications cause deja vu. As late as May 2012, a study from the Czech Republic and United Kingdom shows a link between the size of certain structures in the brain and the occurrence of deja vu.

Up to 20 different kinds of deja vu have been identified. The "top" three are deja vecu (already experienced), deja senti (already felt) and deja visite (already visited), according to psychologist Alan Funkhouser, who also has an informational and interactive website about it:

Though these quirky conditions may be uncomfortable or downright painful, they aren't dangerous and are actually quite normal. Enjoy that ice cream.

Valenti can be reached at



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