Exploding Head Syndrome – Harmless But Disturbing

cartoon explosionAre you sometimes woken by an unusually loud or frightening noise, but when you check your house or ask someone else, there’s no evidence that the noise really 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.

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 less often.

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

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

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 can’t 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 difficulty breathing on waking.

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 experience episodes of exploding head syndrome very often.

Out of 7,752 readers, 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 still aren’t properly understood, but there are two main theories that have been proposed:

  • 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).

In his study, Pearce wasn’t so convinced by these explanations though; 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 many 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 believe it’s more likely to be a variant of sleep starts than a parasomnia. They conclude that:

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. Talk to your primary care doctor if you’re concerned by your symptoms. Your doctor can help reassure you that it’s harmless. And they may prescribe medication such as clomipramine.

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

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

4. Being very tired is thought to increase the likelihood of some parasomnias and sleep starts. So try to keep to a stable sleep schedule, and make lifestyle choices following the guidance of 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. Although 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 like to thank all the many readers who’ve 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.

Thanks

Ethan

 

1,534 CommentsLeave a comment

  • i get this way to often, to the point iv been up reasearchin this all night, iv had several tonight alone, what i find weird is i heard a buzzin noise when i was fallin asleep but i woke up to look at the computer or see if there was a house fly buzzin around my head and even thou i was awake it still came over me , itss stressfull when it happeneds over and over in one night, 2 nights ago it was the same thing,

  • First time for me, normally sleep very sound….8 hours to the minute, always.
    I am a widow so alone.
    I heard really loud constant hammering sounds outside, got up to check the house and it continued for maybe 4-5 minutes, then finally stopped. I also saw a flash of red light when I first got up thinking it was a police car outside.
    I live in the Sierra mountains in a ski resort so sounds are magnified but I guess this was all in my head?
    Good to know It is normal…really scarry.

  • I will hear a very common sound such as a real loud “yoo hoo” the very exact sound your Iphone gives off when you get a text message, I check my phone and no one texted me!

  • Here’s a copy of a post I just made on facebook. I have never experienced this before, although I have experienced sleep paralysis several times. From reading about this now I believe the electrical surge came before the main experience. I also had ringing in the ear before the incident, maybe due to the very loud thunder claps I’m not sure. To note I’m a 33 year old male.

    Wow, so last night I a very bizarre thing happened to me. I got hardly any sleep partly due to the most epic lightening/thunderstorm I think many of us have experienced in quite some time. That alone was intense. But then following that (3am – 5am) I was struggling to get back to sleep. Every time I closed my eyes it felt as though I almost instantly slipped into some altered state, a kind of instant hazy visual but it was more the auditory strangeness I began to notice. I would hear strange sudden loud noises, and then I would instantly open my eyes and there would be relative silence bar the rain (it’s key to point out I never felt like I was actually ever asleep during this, it occurred as I closed my eyes in an attempt to do so).
    At first this was quite subtle and I could not discern if it was actually real noises or not. I assumed this was some mental echo of the thunder and lightening strikes but they started to get very loud and I realised it was triggered when I closed my eyes and tried to sleep. Started to get a buzzing feeling almost, which I can only describe as being in my nerves spine and head. I was super tired and thought I’m just going to ignore the sounds and not open my eyes again. It was at that point that I heard a massive bang, not dissimilar to a lightening blast, but more booming, I heard my window blinds shake violently and almost the sound of breaking glass, followed by the noise of a metal pole flying and landing beside my head on the pillow (but it was like it hit a stone floor, the sound you would imagine).
    Then the really intense part, I heard suddenly the sound of a bird flapping it’s wings right beside my head, as if it was the thing that had burst through the window. I could even feel it there moving and the air on the side of my face from it flapping it’s wings in an attempt to fly away again. I also at this point (even though I was looking the opposite way) had a kind of visual hallucination of the bird, almost silhouetted against a hazy glow right beside my head beating it’s wings. This was pretty scary and for a while I couldn’t move.
    A couple of seconds later I opened my eyes, expecting to see a damn pigeon in my room, nothing. Then it dawned on me that there is no metal pole above my window, then I was like WTF was that!!! I strangely just kind of accepted it but then when attempting to sleep again I had what I can only really describe as an electric/energy surge up through my body and into my head. It didn’t hurt as such it was just, well…shocking and left me with a definite buzzing feeling.
    That last part I’m now not sure whether it happened before or after the bird incident, I can’t recall for sure. But overall it was pretty damn strange. Today aside from being groggy from lack of sleep I feel otherwise fine.
    So yeah, ⚡🕊️⚡

  • I recently has the experience of EHS. It is exactly as you describe it. I hear an explosion and when I wake up, I see sparks. Thank you for your explanation. At least I am not alone, and it is not a dangerous condition.

  • I had it, it was horrible. I heard the loud rushing, and a very real feeling that I was dying. I was screaming I can die here, I started breathing heavy. That’s the only thing I could control. I tried moving my feet my hands my head, yelling. I could not move my body, I could breath and figured the faster I took a breath it might wake me up. I could hear my rapid breathing over the noise. It happend for what seemed like forever. Worst feeling id ever had.

  • I had one a few minutes ago and I thought there must be an answer to this problem online. I was reading and dozing off and then loud pop. I swear I thought I busted a blood vessel in my brain. I’ve had them off and on for years but this on made my head hurt a little on the right side. It’s comforting to hear it’s not serious but the conditions name sounds as scary as it feels when it happens.

  • I’m 18 and lately I’ll wake up to something loud that sounds like thunder,sometimes screaming, sometimes someone whispering my name then repeating it louder and louder. I have a horrible sleeping schedule due to a couple of mental illnesses(General Anxiety disorder,Bipolar disorder & Adhd all keep me from being able to keep a steady routine of any kind,especially without help) finding this artical makes me feel better about hearing all the weird loud sounds before i sleep or when i wake up, and i feel less crazy.

    • I have anxiety and ptsd. When I’m feeling good I don’t have night terrors or anything but when I’m feeling down I will hear noises and I can’t sleep. Last night I kept hearing someone knocking on my door and it kept getting louder until it was like someone was banging on my front door. Then I seen the kitchen light turn on, I was shaking my bf but I couldn’t wake him up so I figured I was dreaming and tried to fall asleep but the I felt the covers being pulled down by my face and above my feet. It was really scary so I just prayed til I feel asleep. I use to wake up to voices calling my name but it stopped in March. It starts usually with knocking or I wake up cause I hear a door open like someone coming in the house.

  • 1o years ago, I awoke to trying to escape bad people chasing me over a fence. I woke up. My heart rate was high over 125. Hubby called the doctor and I went to ER. Doctor said it sounded like an A-Fib attack and another doctor gave me a shot of IBUTILIDE. The HR went to 190. Within a very short while my HR lowered to 80 and I felt like a million bucks I went home an hour later. ast forward to 10 years. (May 18th..2017) Woke up with similar dream. I could not see well. Everything went upside down. I was screaming in fear. Hubby called 911. They called Life light. They said i had a Cerebellum stroke and it must be A-FIB! I do not remember much of the 5 days in the hospital. People were not nice. I fell a few times trying to get to the bathroom and wanted to go home. They put me on Warafin and shipped me out to a Recovery center. I spent a month there and still cannot walk without assistance. My head is killing me. PT now comes to the house…Maybe 4 weeks. Not sure what I had but not being able to walk unassisted is very scary. I hate these dreams. I am blaming them. They call it an A-FIB stroke. I see a Cardio and a Neuro in 2 1/2 weeks. One person called it Wallenberg syndrome. God only knows. I want to get well.

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