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

 

1,388 CommentsLeave a comment

  • I don’t just have this problem when trying to fall asleep or wake up it can happen anytime of the day. I also have constant ringing in my both ears

  • OMG! I can’t believe I stumbled onto this article and other people have this condition too. I have asked an untold number of doctors about this to no avail. I almost myself that one of these sensations would take out of life. Good to know! Thanks

  • I’ve been experiencing these sensations for years now. I would have just fallen asleep and then woken by an extremely loud noise such as an explosion in my head which would jolt me awake. However just recently (approximately for 2 months) I seem to be experiencing explosion sensations throughout the day right through my body as well as my head.

  • I have this all the time. Around once or twice a week, im fine with it, its just odd. When i hear the noise, at the same time when the noise happens, there is a flash of light, usually almost always black and white stripes (Thick stripes)

  • I’m Linda
    I have read all of the above and I am happy that there are others who hear that loud electrical buzzing sound in their ears before the SP takes place. My story is very confusing to me because I started getting the buzzing many years ago, I was doing a lot of spiritual work and meditation at the time, I was happy and loved my dreams and spiritual experiences. My dreams were always very prophetic, but the more I advanced spiritually the more the SP happened with the electricity running through my ears, through my brain and sometimes up and down my spine. I saw some horrible things and had some terrifying experiences, until I finally saw a doctor who referred me to a neurologist. He said he was 99% certain I had what was called sleep epilepsy, I was sent for tests but the tests came back normal, he told me he could only put it down to true psychic phenomena. The SP had been happening from 1999 to around 2009. Suddenly they stopped. I have not had one for 7/8 years……that was until a few nights ago 2nd Jan 2017, Why I do not know. when I went to bed I was restless, then I to myself I said my nightly gratitude prayers, not long after I heard the buzzing in my right ear so I turned over onto my left side then I heard it in my left ear. I thought “‘oh no’. before I could do anything about it I felt pinned to the bed like I was being help down, the buzzing got louder and louder and I started yelling, Get off me leave me alone in my head. I looked out of the corner of my eye and saw a very tall dark figure which freaked me more. My dog who sleeps at the foot of my bed on his own bed, jumped onto my bed and stood staring at me, he appeared confused just looking at me. I focused on him and finally I woke from the noises and SP. My dog jumped off my bed and went back onto his bed. I do not understand why this has come back, I do not meditate like I used to nor do as much spiritual work but I felt sick all day yesterday and when I finally went to bed last night I left the hall light on. could it be from another dimension?

    • I have had the exact same experience just now except I didn’t see anything. I also have recently started meditating! I had the loud noises running all through my head but also I kept getting crazy dizzy spells and feeling like I was going to pass out I was trying to put my hand on my head but I physically couldn’t. My cat was lying next me I also heard him making noises. I was thing ‘stop stop stop’ to myself and then I came out of it. Felt like I was in it for a least a minute.

  • Last night I was awakened by three quick knocks on my front door. it was about 5.30am. I have a neighbour who has just returned home after losing her husband just before Christmas and I thought it could be her. She had phoned me, not that early, but awakened me, the morning before. Not only was no one at the door, but her lights were off, there were no sounds at all. This is not the first time I have experienced the knocking, indeed I am quite used to it, but i had not read an explanation of the syndrome. Incidientally, my front door opens immediately on to a small path, then the lane, which is not a through road, in a very quiet unlit village in England. My front doorknocker has been a temptation to little boys in the past, but never before light. We also get couriers but never that early and I have a milkman who delivers at 7am. This morning, as I said, there was not a sound outside. No lights either, so I stood for a while and looked at the fantastic show in the heavens of distant galaxies and stars. Then back to bed!

  • I was falling asleep, dreaming about work related scenarios (not uncommon in my life). I was snuggled up to my wife, when all of a sudden when I thought I had fallen asleep, I got hit with a huge white ball of light that caused me to wake up frightened–could this be spiritual? Is my brain telling me something? I felt as if god was in the room and I was frightened. I do not recall any loud noises, it felt as if I was being forced to stop thinking of bad things, I’m scared to death right now. Further, your sight has calmed me down a bit to where I will try to sleep again. Should I be concerned? Also, I have recently ran out of some medication taken for anxiety (400 MG Buprorian XL per day), could this be the cause? Can you help me reach some sort of conclusion as to what this may be? Thank you so much for your consideration. I don’t recall ever being this terrified from such an awakening. I don’t usually have problems like this. I’ve never experienced anything like this.

  • Interesting. I went on holiday with family and my sister said to me she thought I had sleep apnea (her husband has it) which I had never really heard of. Anyway I also experience loud noises…more like an electrical snap in my brain or explosion. (It happens from time to time. Debated about going to doctors but what can they do about it? I’m not taking any tablets unless it’s life threatening which it doesnt appear to be but the sleep apnea is probably more to be concerned about. Not sure whether to speak to doc or not! Is there a cure for this??

  • All that I have just read on this somnia
    Has contributed to my epesodes of the load nioces such as load knocks sometimes in 2s and at times 3 knocks at a time. When I was a truck driver tired fatigued They would startle the hell out of me thinking someone was breaking into my truck!! They did occur while tired and very fatigued. My wife just had a first epesode last nite. It startled her. That prompt me to look into it just now. She has been under a lot of stress lately. Thank you very much for the vert informal input

  • I have had the first 2 episodes of this, in the month of December 2016. First time I had been sleeping and thought a tree fell on my roof, the noise was so loud. The second time it woke me up like a gun shot next to my ear. I was upset that I could not rationalize these noises. I also suffer from some decrease hearing in both of my ears and a “whipping” type sound on occasion.

  • I looked this up today,as I had this [not the first time] this morning.I got up and suddenly felt really ‘light’ and then there was a loud bang,and it was like someone had thrown a stone at the window ,but without it smashing.
    It is not the first time,but it’s usually when falling asleep.It is a bit disturbing and my heart does feel like it ‘skips a beat’ when it happens,but I presume one can get used to it,but it would be cool if it didn’t happen at all tho!
    I notice it even has a name [EHS] but I’m sure it needs more research,especially when people are hearing ‘screams’.Is it possible we are even entering into the realms of the paranormal here,tuning into the other realms or is the ‘dream-state ‘encroaching into the consciousness of being ‘awake’ somehow?
    Even tho the medical people say it’s nothing to worry about,I’m not convinced it isn’t to do with symptoms that could possibly indicate stroke or heart attack,or even brain tumor.

  • I had something bizzare happen like this the other night. I don’t know if it was a dream or what. I woke up to an extremely loud sound, almost like a whirring or jet or something, looked down at the door and saw a bright blue light coming underneath it. After it stopped, I started looking around the dark room and could see all different colors and patterns going around the room. I was so scared I got up and turned the light on and enraged my husband for waking him up.

    I’ve also had many, many times when I’ve woken up to loud bangs and whatnot. I do have a very erratic sleep pattern. So I’m assuming that the other night was just another form of EHS. This one was more terrifying than the rest, though. It just seemed so real!

  • Hi
    I was recently going through my sleep apnea results with consultant. I decided to share a story of what I had experienced days earlier.
    I told her how I was JUST about to fall asleep when I experienced something odd and new for me. It was about me almost falling asleep when I was woken by an enormously LOUD bang accompanied with a visual of a cracking pattern on the ground. The cracking was highlighted; a brighter light colour. The ground was starting to crack about 5 meters away from me. My head was on the ground sideways; central to the centre of the cracked road surface. When it all came together, central to my head on the ground, the loud bang occurred. It made me jump so high in my bed. I was startled.
    I tried to fall asleep again. The same thing happened within minutes.
    I got up and did t go ba k to bed for a few hours. I was EXTREMELY TIRED before this started; lmost dead to the world and NEEDED to sleep. I can’t emphasise it enough.
    I was too frightened by the second episode I did not want to see if it happened a third time so I waited a while before going to bed again.
    She looked at me as if I should be hospitalised. I would like to forget her ignorant facial expression. I did not buy anything from her!! I exuded myself and left.

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