Exploding Head Syndrome – Harmless But Disturbing

cartoon explosionDo you ever suddenly wake up to an incredibly loud or frightening noise?

But when you check your house or ask someone else, there’s no evidence that the noise actually happened?

If so, it could be that you’ve experienced exploding head syndrome. This is a relatively uncommon sleep disorder which belongs in the parasomnia category.

Parasomnias are most easily understood as strange occurrences that happen during sleep, while falling asleep or waking up.

It was first documented in 1920 by the scientist Armstrong-Jones, who described it as a ‘snapping of the brain’.

It was thought for a long time to be most common in people over the age of 50, with younger generations experiencing it far less.

However, researchers at Washington State University in 2015 found that actually many young people also experience exploding head syndrome. In fact, in their study 18% of the 211 undergraduates they interviewed had experienced it in their lifetime, with 16.60% on a recurrent basis.

The name exploding head syndrome is misleading, as it conjures up all kinds of horror-film images. Fortunately though, people who experience this do wake up with their heads in one piece!

To understand why it has such a dramatic name, let’s take a look at the symptoms.

Exploding head syndrome symptoms

1. The main symptom is imagining you hear a very loud and sudden sound, for example:

  • The sound of a bomb.
  • The sound of gunshot.
  • A loud clash of cymbals.
  • The sound of a door slamming.
  • An extremely loud rushing sound.
  • People screaming or shouting.
  • An electrical buzzing sound.
  • Any other loud sound which cannot be described exactly.

2. People don’t usually report feeling pain with exploding head syndrome. They may describe it as painful initially, but then reveal it’s just extremely loud. They may, however, be scared or upset when it wakes them up.

3. Exploding head syndrome is sometimes accompanied by a sensation of a flashing light.

4. People may feel it affects their breathing – with a gasping of breath or short-lasting difficulty breathing.

5. People may experience an episode of sleep paralysis, sometimes taking the form of a reported out-of-body experience.

6. An episode can last for between just a few seconds and a few minutes. It usually occurs when falling asleep or waking up, but not during the main stages of sleep.

The researcher J M Pearce conducted a detailed study of 50 patients with exploding head syndrome in 1989 to analyze what kinds of symptoms they experienced, which you can read here for further information.

Poll results

You can see from the graph below that fortunately the majority of readers don’t actually experience episodes of exploding head syndrome very often.

Out of 7,752 voters, 3,250 said they experience it rarely. Only 911 said they experience it nearly every day.

graph showing the exploding head syndrome poll results

Causes of exploding head syndrome

The causes of exploding head syndrome are still not properly understood unfortunately. Two theories that have been put forward are:

  • Minor seizures in the temporal lobe.
  • Involuntary movements of parts of the ear, such as the tympanum (the ear drum), or the tensor tympani (the muscle involved in reducing sound – e.g. the sound of chewing food).

J M Pearce in his study was unsure as the likelihood of these explanations. He believed it would be better to classify exploding head syndrome along with other biological mechanisms that occur when falling asleep.

This includes the muscular jerks that most people experience, known either as hypnic jerks, sleep starts or nocturnal myoclonus.

More recently in 2010, the researchers Thorpy and Plazzi also wrote that they believe exploding head syndrome is a variant of hypnic jerks. They thought it fits better as a variant of sleep starts rather than under the category of parasomnias.

Thorpy and Plazzi have the following conclusion about exploding head syndrome in their paper:

The EHS is a benign, usually self-limited, condition that is likely a sensory variant of the hypnic jerk. No testing or medications are necessary when the history is typical. Educations and reassurance are the cornerstones of therapy. If the symptoms occur multiple times a night and cause insomnia, a hypnotic may be useful.

Treatment

1. If you think you may have it, then you can talk to your doctor to find out more. A doctor will firstly be able to reassure you that it’s harmless. And they may prescribe medication such as clomipramine, which is a tricyclic anti-depressant.

2. There have been limited attempts to work out which other medications can help. There’s still isn’t cure for EHS, but researchers have found some success with Tompimirate, Clonezapam, Clomipramnine and Nifedipine. You can find out more about the use of these medicines in this study.

3. Stress is known to be a factor that can increase the frequency and intensity of parasomnias and sleep starts. If you do suffer from stress or anxiety at night, you might find it helpful to try some specific relaxation techniques for sleep.

4. Don’t allow yourself to become too fatigued. Tiredness is also known to contribute to these kind of sleep problems. So try to keep to a stable sleep schedule, and make lifestyle choices which form good sleep hygiene.

5. It’s important not to become anxious about falling asleep. Try not to worry that you’ll experience exploding head syndrome and that something bad will happen to you. Whilst it’s understandably quite disturbing, it’s not known to have any damaging effect on you.

Your thoughts

(Please read before leaving a comment)

I’d live to thank all the many readers who have shared their story and offered ideas and support to others.

Unfortunately, I won’t be able to respond personally to any more comments on this article due to time constraints.

However, I’ll leave the comments open so that you can continue to share your thoughts, and communicate with other readers who have similar experiences.

Thank you

Ethan

 

1,418 CommentsLeave a comment

  • My experience was a bit different. I know that iv’e had this before even though I don’t quite remember the circumstances. But just this night I was dreaming and then, it was almost as if the sounds from my dream were being turned into loud TV static and I almost woke up, but went into a more awake dream state (the kind where you know your dreaming). In that state I told my friend what had just happened while my dreams were shifting and it happened again, this time waking me up. I knew right after I woke up that the sound wasn’t real and that this has happened before with a more normal sound like something crashing. It doesn’t really bother me too much, but it’s nice to know that it’s not dangerous.

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