Are 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. Although it can be scary, it’s not believed to cause real physical harm.
It was first documented in 1920 by the scientist Armstrong-Jones, who described it as a ‘snapping of the brain’.
Compared to many other sleep disorders, there hasn’t been so much research into the causes or prevalence. But scientists are slowly starting to understand it better.
How common is exploding head syndrome?
In 2014, researchers in Germany reviewed multiple cases and previous research, with some interesting findings:
- The average age of onset is 54
- More women report experiencing it than men
- The average frequency of attacks is between once a day and once a week
- The most common symptoms are noise, fear and sudden sensations of light
However, researchers at Washington State University in 2015 found that many younger people also experience exploding head syndrome.
And their research provided some different insights:
- 18% of the 211 undergraduates they interviewed had experienced it in their lifetime
- 16.60% experienced it on a regular basis
- There was no difference in how often men and women have it
- 2.8% had clinically significant levels of distress or reduced ability to function
The differences in results could be explained by how the research was conducted. Perhaps more women have it later in life, but an equal number of men and women when younger.
It doesn’t cause physical harm
The name exploding head syndrome itself sounds very dramatic, but is somewhat misleading; it conjures up all kinds of horror film images.
The reality is that it’s seen by sleep experts as benign, and not usually associated with pain, even though it can be unsettling.
To understand why it has such an emotive name, let’s take a look at the symptoms.
Exploding head syndrome symptoms
There are several possible symptoms commonly reported. They can occur either when falling asleep or waking up:
1. Hearing a sudden and loud noise that isn’t real
The main symptom is the hallucination of a loud and sudden sound. It can feel like it’s coming from inside your head, somewhere in your house, or even outside.
People often describe it as one of the following:
- The sound of an exploding bomb
- The sound of gunshot
- A loud clash of cymbals
- The sound of a door slamming
- A rushing sound
- People screaming or shouting
- An electrical buzzing sound
- Any other loud sound which can’t be described exactly
2. Seeing a flash of light
Exploding head syndrome is sometimes accompanied by a sensation of a flashing light. Like the noise though, there’s no actual light source causing it.
3. Feeling scared, anxious or upset
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.
However, the sudden noise and other symptoms can be very disturbing. So it’s not uncommon to wake up feeling scared or upset by what just happened.
4. Heart palpitations and breathing difficulty
Some people report waking up with a fast or unusual heart beat, and sometimes the feeling that it’s hard to breathe.
5. Accompanying sleep paralysis
People may experience an episode of sleep paralysis, sometimes taking the form of an out-of-body experience. In fact, researchers have found it’s more common in people who regularly have sleep paralysis.
Back in 1989, the researcher J M Pearce conducted a detailed study of 50 patients with exploding head syndrome. He analyzed the different kinds of symptoms they experienced, which you can read about here for further information.
I ran a poll of readers for three months to see how often they felt they experienced symptoms of exploding head syndrome.
Out of 7,752 readers who voted, a combined total of 53.5% said they experience it at least once a month. 41.9% said they experience it very rarely though.
Causes of exploding head syndrome
The causes of exploding head syndrome still aren’t properly understood. But several theories have been proposed:
- A neurological condition, such as minor seizures in the temporal lobe
- Sudden movement in inner ear parts, such as the tympanum (the ear drum), or the tensor tympani (the muscle involved in reducing sound – e.g. the sound of chewing food)
- Related to fear, stress or anxiety
- Calcium signalling impairment
In his study, Pearce believed it would be better to classify it along with other biological mechanisms that occur when falling asleep, such as hypnic jerks.
And in 2010, the researchers Thorpy and Plazzi also wrote that they believe exploding head syndrome is a variant of hypnic jerks. They reported 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. Education and reassurance are the cornerstones of therapy. If the symptoms occur multiple times a night and cause insomnia, a hypnotic may be useful.
Treatment options are limited due to the fact that it’s currently seen as physically harmless.
Just knowing what it is, and that you’re not the only one who has it, can be helpful. That might be reassuring enough to help you cope with it better in the future.
However, you might like to consider the following options if you remain concerned:
1. Talk to your personal doctor or physician
Speak to your doctor or physician if you’re concerned by your symptoms. They might want to check for other causes, such as headache disorders or seizures. But they can also help reassure you that it’s harmless.
It might help to keep a sleep diary of what happened, how you felt, and what you ate or did each day. You can then show that to your doctor.
There’s isn’t a cure as such, but in severe cases your doctor might prescribe a tricylic anti-depressant or calcium channel blocker.
3. Reduce stress and anxiety
Stress and anxiety can increase the frequency and intensity of some sleep disorders. If you’re under a lot of stress and/or suffer from anxiety at night, it’s a good idea to find ways to tackle it.
4. Practice good sleep habits
Sleep deprivation, exhaustion, and many lifestyle choices can increase the likelihood of disturbed sleep. So try to stick to a regular sleep schedule, and practice good sleep habits.
5. Try not to worry about your sleep
It’s important not to become anxious about falling asleep. Try not to worry that you’ll experience another episode or that something bad will happen to you.
That might be easier said than done, but some positive auto-suggestion at night can be helpful.
Have you experienced exploding head syndrome? What symptoms did you have, and how did it make you feel?
Feel free to share your story and thoughts in the comments below.