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

 

1,442 CommentsLeave a comment

  • I was just about to fall asleep when I heard like a balloon pop and like I felt my hair go up kind of like chills very weird so I had to search it up and I came across this website and comment section but I should probably sleep I have school tomorrow

  • I just experienced this for the 1st time last night. I was about to fall asleep when I heard a man’s voice speaking very loudly. I thought it was my husband (we have separate bedrooms due to his snoring.) I jumped in my sleep, like when you think you are falling and jump involuntarily. I was so scared, I thought someone was in my bedroom but I looked around and it was nothing. I was too unnerved to try to sleep for another few hours.

  • Thank you so much for this. I had no idea what it was. It has been going on for about 5 yrs now. I thought I was going nuts. Kept hearing loud bang,slam, something like that. It woke me up, and I was very scared. I realized pretty soon it was in my head. I didn’t ask or tell anyone. I have anxiety disorder,under Dr care and have it handled quite well. 35 yrs ago I was diagnosed with “temporal lobe epilespy” , which I do not have. It has all been from the panic/anxiety attacks. This finally makes sense to me.

  • It’s common for me to lucid dream (or at least wake up if I’m scared), and the very loud fast screaming is hands down the scariest dream I can have. It’s also the only type of dream where I am not able to wake up, and in the moment I desperately want to wake up. So I must be under sleep paralysis when this happens. I absolutely hate when a dream ends this way. It is so terrifying

  • Ive gone through this a few times but my most horrifying one was waking up to hearing screams. It sounded like someone was screaming in my ear. I was stuck and I couldn’t move. Scary and happens frequently.

  • Just experienced this now for the second time in the past week. The first time, I woke up to the sound of (and this is going to sound really strange, but) the sound of a really loud ‘boing’ or a large spring I guess? I thought it came from my bedroom (I was sleeping on the couch), so I checked, but there was nothing. I chalked it up to being part of my dream. The second time, ie just now, I heard a loud bang that sounded like a gunshot, or something really heavy falling down, I suppose. I checked my whole apartment and there was nothing. Plus, if there had been such a loud noise, I’m sure one of my neighbours in the building would have heard it and called somebody…
    I don’t know; I’m feeling pretty anxious now and I don’t want to go back to sleep. I know this explanation makes sense but I can’t help but feel uneasy that this has happened twice in a week.. in three nights, even.

  • I have this all time, several times a week. Its either a clicking, loud pop or a electrical buzz with light. It occurs when I am just about to drift off to sleeping. It happens once or twice a night in varying types of sounds.

  • Just literally happened to me now! Hence why I am on here writing this. Mine felt like a cross between me being inside a giant balloon and someone popping it and a bomb exploding from inside my head/body. I’m now sat upright in bed and dont want to go back to sleep (it happened around 5am)

  • This has happened to me my entire life when I’m extremely tired. It never scared or worried me, I almost feel comfort in it when it happens bc I know I’m about to fall asleep haaard.

  • Hi. I’ve had the EHS for years and quite often. It still makes me not want to go back to sleep. Mine is like a loud gun shot. My son has the same thing.

  • The first time i got this, it was pretty scary, because I was in a dream. I don’t think I was all the way asleep, but I said “this is a dream!” You know, like a lucid dream. But since I wasn’t all the way asleep, I don’t know if it was this but it was really loud and I thought I confused my brain into having a seizure or something

  • I also woke up still hearing the screaming scary noises I called my sister to come upstairs and I could still hear it from the phone.. I heard the screaming up until my sister opened my bedroom door. She had no knowledge of what I was talking about

  • I was sleeping last night and was woken up at 11:30 to hear screaming with someone saying I’m going to kill you little girls laughing this went on for a couple minutes with me wide awake I asked everyone in my family if they heard it they all said no.. it was so loud idk how they couldn’t hear it I’m very freaked out now.

    • I am a medium/sensitive. It could be that you are hearing a ghost. Ghosts are people people who have died and don’t know how to get to “the other side.” At my church we have come up with a simple healing treatment that really does work. NEVER just try to evict a ghost from your place, if they go they might feel even MORE rejected and cause harm without meaning to do so.

      Before meditating, or healing, ALWAYS close your aura to all but your higher self, God, or whatever it is you believe in, it does not matter, just that your aura is closed. Your higher self is NOT closing your aura, you are – and you are allowing your higher self to guide you on what to say to do the healing. We are all healers, even if we don’t know it.

      “Welcome, dear one. You are raised to the level of your Christ vibration. You are filled and surrounded by the Christ love. You are filled and surrounded by the Christ light. You are loved healed and forgiven. You are free from fear, pain, and the earth vibration. I ask Jesus or your perfect right Christ, to take you to your true and perfect place of expression. Thank you God, and so it is.”

      This is the treatment that we use . . . you may hear something that is a bit different. You are HELPING this ghost by HEALING it. As you do the healing it will feel it and they are always very grateful.

  • as i am going off to sleep, whether at night or waking up in the morning and than trying to go back to sleep this noise happens.
    it is the same sound you would get if you picked up a sledge hammer and slammed it down on an anvil as hard as you could.
    this happens all night long, stopping me going into a peaceful sleep.
    i am so tired all the time now.
    it started a few months ago, just like that, it was there and now won’t go away.
    it is my worst nightmare come true
    i am 59 by the way

    • I am a medium/sensitive and started having these episodes myself, starting in 2004. The first one was the most dramatic, not really traumatic, since I am fairly used to paranormal things. I heard and felt something that felt like a bolt of lightning, you know that kind of snap! I could not move though I could look around the room with my eyes. I did not know what to make of this. This would happen while I was going to sleep.

      (I should mention here that spirit usually awakens me around 3 a.m., I think that is because that is the quietest part of the day and easier for us to listen to them. In the beginning of being awakened by one of my spirit guides, I would usually hear the sound of the doorbell [which I knew it could not be as it had been broken when I purchased the house and I never fixed it, so that I never had to answer the door to solicitors! Everyone who knew me would come around the back side door.] or the phone ringing, though it never was. One night I was SO tired that in order to wake me up I was giving the sound of what seemed to be a battering ram being pounded on my door!

      I was looking at some journals and I had been visited by a nice man who met me on the side of some mountain and he wanted me to go to the top of the mountain with him. I thought there might be a spaceship or something up there so I was too afraid to go with him. He did NOT force me to go. I had this vision, always wide awake, about three times.

      One time when I had been out drinking, A LOT, I actually saw this guy who seemed to be in the shadow of the room and seemed to be wearing a cerulean blue cloak. He zapped me and then he was shining this blue light at me, which seemed to be coming from his chest. I must admit, I was just a tad bit concerned. When I started to turn away from him he ZAPPED! me again. He did this a few times. Finally, I told him that if he wanted me to pay attention to him, he had better stop zapping me because it could scare me – and he quit zapping me.

      I believe we see beings as familiar beings to us. Since I do see other spirit guides from time to time and guardian angels once in a while, I do have some point of view on the subject. Also, in the beginning when I would get things clairvoyantly I would hear things that did not make sense to me. One time, I wanted to know when a certain thing was going to happen and I heard, “Two weeks,” and then I heard, “Two months.” It turned out to be six weeks later. I wondered why I didn’t hear six weeks. It finally occurred to me that even though I hear them in my language they are actually speaking in their own language. One of my spirit guides is Ramon and he may have been the one who was talking to me. From the look of him, I would say he lived around the middle ages, longish hair, straight bangs, clean shaven. In Spanish when saying a time, it is quite common to say, “Un quarto menos dolce.” Which would be a quarter (15 minutes) less twelve, a quarter to twelve. So, two weeks from two months . . . six weeks.

      And that is if they are from this planet and this dimension and this time. I cannot even imagine how people from somewhere else can even begin to communicate with us. Even a genius might seem like an infant to someone from another planet, or time.

      If this is too scary for you, you can just say that next time you feel that exploding head syndrome. Or if you want to know more, simply ask the person to find an easier way to communicate with you . . . maybe even “send” them a picture of what you might think would be something you might receive better.

      I do think that they try to get in touch with people they feel are ready.

  • Ive been having these episodes every single night for nearly a month now. I always have trouble falling asleep and when i just get to the point of dozing off i hear 3 or 4 loud bangs like someone banging on my door .. Some nights it sounds as though someone is stomping on the floor and other nights it sounds like a picture falling off the wall and hitting the floor …. I was starting to think my house is haunted until i did some research and found out about the exploding head syndrome ….. Thank god that explains it and im not crazy … LOL … I am a 48 yr. old male and also suffer from PTSD , agoraphobia , severe sleep apnea , social anxiety , tremors and sleep paralysis …. Yeah , all i needed on top of all that is an exploding head.

  • I am pregnant and while I have had this all my life, being extra fatigued I feel it has gotten worse, hence me after 26 years “Googling” it tonight. I have had an episode of Sleep Paralysis before and my goodness it was horrifying. EHS explains everything I have dealt with every night of my life. I’m actually typing this at 5:30 in the morning in a Saturday… I just woke my husband up because I woke up to someone banging loudly on the windows… and at 2am woke up to the dogs barking… they were fast asleep in their beds :-(

  • I have them often sleeping in my van homeless,the last one wad a nitemare with auditory hissing ladting after awaking now i know what it os thanks ethan

  • Thank goodness for this article. This just happened to me for the first time. I’m 42, female, and under significant stress due to the nature of work I do as well as recent series of spinal fusion surgeries (two failed and we are hoping the third is successful).
    I was drifting off to sleep and thought someone had just started a duck hunt – I could have sworn I heard a series of gunshots. I then realised it was in my head and it was like a bomb! Whole body started shaking, sweating, and I thought I must have had an aneurysm- except it didn’t hurt.
    Scary so I reached for the phone and googled “felt like head just exploded” – and whaddya know!

  • 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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