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

 

1,500 CommentsLeave a comment

  • Unfortunately, every one of the of symptoms, experiences and phenomenons you all have shared “sound way too familiar to me!” These things are occurring much more frequently-especially the loud booms that correlate with my heart pounding rapidly as I jerk awake!… “I’M SICK OF IT!” My 2 dogs are also taking notice. (“I’ll find them staring strangely concerned at me as I jump awake!”)
    I’ve been a sleep walker/talker/fighter,(acting out dreams), etc. for my entire 46 years of life! So, I totally commiserate with you guys! Thanks for posting and sharing!!! Now, I suppose I need to have a long chat with my Doctors and see what can be done- if anything- (“as I’m already on a lot of Meds for various conditions, and not sure if the drugs you all have mentioned can be combined with what I’m currently taking.”) Good luck guys! (“And try to get some F—ING sleep!”)

  • I hear a loud crash,bang noise.usually late a.m. I wake up to it I look around the room there was nothing .only in my head.my spouse staye’s asleep.seems to be coming louder. I’ll be seeing my doctor. my age 57. Good to now there is medication. ..I haven’t told any one. What could they say…Thank you ..

  • I experienced this lastnight, and it has happend to me before too, i woke up suddenly and i couldnt move, i thought it was sleep paralysis but there was a really big noice it was like a buzzing sound, it was very very loud, it lasted for few seconds, when i recovered, i was so scared, and i felt difficult in breathing, it happened to me twice, its good to know this isnt harmful, when this happened to me, both times i tried to be calm and relax, i said its ok, its ok over and over and it helped me recover quickly,

  • Two or three times a week as I am drifting off to sleep there are sounds of a hammer banging against something metal. Bang bang bang….stops for a few seconds then again. I’m fully awake and even tell my husband when it’s happening. The noise varies but always multiple sounds like someone hammering on different materials, but mostly metal. It’s very weird but doesn’t hurt, no flash or lights, just the noise. Ive learned to live with it.

  • I just came upon this page when googling about my rushing screaming noises in my head! So comforting to now know I AM NOT ALONE (and it IS’NT hauntings or alien invasions, LOL). I am 49 and have had some serious past injuries to my head and ears, so wondered, like others, if I was having a mini stroke or something. The terrible tinnitus has been going on for years, as well as the Hypnic Jerks, as I now know they are called, but did know that these were both very normal. It’s been the recent Exploding Head Syndrome that was scaring the shit out of me. Mine usually happen as I’m falling asleep, especially when I’m over tired, and usually feel or sound like an electrical current “zapping between my Synapses” (as I thought of it), seeming to zip from one side of my brain to the other, not painful, but very loud and alarming, and seeming to almost stop my heart and take my breath away, thogh that could just be a panic reaction to the noise/feeling, whatever you want to call it. I’ve also had the loud knocking happen, but that is usually when I’m fully asleep and that wakes me right up. Sometimes my dog, my protector who sleeps on the floor on my side of the bed, will also wake and start growling, so I think it’s loud enough for him to hear with his advanced canine hearing, or maybe he just senses that I’m having an issue. Very strange, but so glad I came upon this and could share, and now I am not so afraid of it, maybe I will actually get back to sleep after one now. Just hope they don’t get worse or become more frequent. I would love to learn more about this “syndrome” and hope some medical scientists in the near future will do more studies on it.

    • Hi I have the same symptoms sometimes it’s a laud bark I look at my dog and he’s sound asleep,yesterday I heard sounds coming from another room I looked around and said wow there is no radio on or tv.
      I do have tinitest but this is different from the hissing in my ears please keep in touch

  • Thank God I found this article. I was thinking I’ve been disturbed by evil. Heard door slaming quiet often and wake me up. The other night i heard someone screaming on my ears and my response was dont disturb me!! I feel like i really talked to “someone”
    now I know I am not weird or my room full of evil. I hope I can be free from this, it’s pretty annoying. What should I do?

  • I have this happen to me on many occasions. And speaking of it happened 10 minutes or so ago, which is why im here. Normally I realize it was in my head even tho it seems so realistic thats how used I’ve gotten to them. But this one was like knocking and scratching on my door and it was longer then usual. So creepy i didnt even want to go check if it was real…

  • I was awakened by a gunshot sound last night. It was part of a dream in which I watched somebody being shot. The weird part I don’t remember happening ever before in any of my dreams was that as this person’s body was moving backwards under the impact and the shot rang out, I woke up, but for a split second before, the whole dream frame froze, and so did the victim’s body movement.

    I’ve had loud bangs wake me up before (not too often), but even though they sounded as part of the dream, they were not related to the dream’s content. I attributed them to possible car doors slamming in my apartment’s parking lot. However, a variation of this phenomenon was being woken up by imaginary knocks on my door or door bell rings.

    My father suffered from narcolepsy, and my sleep hasn’t been the best after I turned forty. In order to get enough sleep, I have to take half of .25 tablet of alprazolam before bedtime.

  • This just woke me up. It started with me being half awake from a bad dream, and the ringing noise followed and I saw a flash of light as I woke up. Scared me so bad…

    • I have had a similar experience with the flash light in my sleep but the sound sounded like it was so loud like a power drill getting pulled in to my ear drum and it feels like your isolated and cant wait to wake up almost feeling like aliens are among us lol

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