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

 

1,630 CommentsLeave a comment

  • It is my contention that this is for the most part, a supernatural event contrary to what conventional medical science would lend you to believe. Most people just blow it off as something weird that happens but they don’t really talk about it or know why it happens. The notion that something is occurring beyond the scope of what we can see or hear can’t be substantiated by empirical studies alone. The supernatural sciences are still considered fringe and are largely discounted.

  • I have experienced this since I can remember. I am 37 now. I do also have the jerks occasionally upon falling asleep.
    When I was younger it sounded like knocks nearby.. now I hear loud knocks or sometimes almost a hammering sound similar to construction.
    At one time it frightened me. A few times I even got up and opened my door, so convinced it was real!! I have dogs now and it helps because when I wake up from hearing crazy noises or knocks and my dog isn’t barking I know it wasn’t real.

  • I’ve just woke to the sound of a door slamming and yet again as I walk through the house, nothing is shut and all is fine. I feel crazy and can’t sleep now, since I woke thinking someone had broke into our house. My kids and husband are sound asleep so they didn’t hear it. I’ve had this happen about 3 times now in the last couple months. I always check the time when I wake and it’s always an hour or so after falling asleep. I feel better after reading this article but still will lay here wondering if I really heard a door slamming before I’m able to go back asleep. If I have exploding head syndrome I’d feel better but I guess there’s no way to know. I don’t see lights or anything. Just the door slamming that wakes me from what I feel was a pretty decent sleep. So yes I wake both racing heart and kinda unnerved.

  • Hi, I’ve been hearing loud bangs or knocking for about 10 years, which wakes me up instantly. Also I have woken up on the odd occasion catching my breath as I feel like I’ve stopped breathing ( very scary )
    I do work a lot of hours (72+) a week and I’m an ex soldier having served and experienced many difficult & traumatic situations. Also had a difficult childhood. I’m just wondering if any of these events may be causing me to hear the noises & feeling of suffocation as I sleep ? And No I’ve never been to my doctor to report this as I don’t want him calling me mad .

  • I been experiencing like a light blub going off whilst sleeping. Sleepless night is.now making me sick. Also diagnosed with thyhoid so.not easy at all.

  • I’ve had this occasionally for probably 10-15 years. It’s always as I’m falling asleep, never any other time. I’ve had migraines since about age 6, maybe that’s relevant. The sounds I hear are like someone smacking 2 cooking pots together right by my head, or someone yelling my name, or other non-identifiable, sudden, loud sounds. I also often have hypnogogic jerks, as I’m falling asleep. Very interested in finding out what causes these things. They have never alarmed me; just thought it was some kind of brain fart.

  • This happened to me last night first time I have ever experienced anything like this I was asleep then all of a sudden there was this loud bang it was like something had punched a hole in to this world really scared me my heart was racing fast I got up looked around the house my kids were still asleep and as was my partner the wired thing was tho was my ears sort of seemed like they was ringing for a bit so wired

  • I have had this for the last 4/5 years , it comes and goes , I can go weeks with nothing at all then several nights in a row , usually as I’m going to sleep , have got used to it now , I call it my brain shut down , sometimes it’s annoying , but as everything seems to function normally next day , i try to forget it

  • Just happened again. Usually it is doorbells (not my own) or knocking (again, not my own door). This time it was 4 loud gunshots. I had been asleep about 4 hours or so. Usually, for me, it happens on awakening instead of falling asleep, OR I just happen to wake after it happens. It definitely is a nervous system disorder. I have had it my entire life, but it increased after menopause, as many things do increase with intensity. I am a young 52 years old. I have also been diagnosed with migraines and currently I am not taking my Topimax. Perhaps I should. Often I have woken to the thought that I just had a seizure. If so, it is was not a grand mal. My sleep-deprived EEG shows abnormal waves, but I cannot remember which one. Also, it reads cannot rule out or distinguish between seizure and migraine. Personal thoughts as a medical professional myself: I believe these are seizures occurring most likely in the temporal lobe, hence the sounds. I believe they are related to an anxiety disorder, which is the result of an overactive nervous system. Now, I think I will take something to calm my nerves. Any one of these, not all together, will work: xanax, gabapentin, 10 mg adult dose melatonin. Good luck everyone. Whew, I am shook up.

  • Last night when I was in a deep sleep, dreaming, I felt what could only be described as cattle prod or concrete vibrator in my ear area. I was sleeping on my right side and the zap was on the right. I awoke instantly, wide-eyed and said ” what the f#$% was that! ” Didn’t scare me and after I went to the can, fell back to sleep. No pain or any other reactions. Perplexing.

  • This literally just happened to me a few minutes ago. I was just STARTING to fall asleep and I heard a very loud “CHOO!” that sounded like a demonic digital thing yelling. Scared the hell outta me, my heart is still pounding and even after reading this I don’t wanna go to sleep. 😔

  • Is there anyone out there who has EHS during the day while awake? I laughed when I read that some people has as many as 7 a night. . How about 20 to 30 a day? I just looked to my left to pick up a glass of water and BOOM. I don not find them frightening, not even annoying anymore , just interesting. I get them so often I hardly notice them anymore.

    • Hi Leah,
      Yes I get hypnic jerks in the back of my neck throughout the day on occasions, they can be quite loud and I can feel my neck pumping. Maybe more so when I am tired as I don’t sleep well at night.
      The cause of not sleeping is that there is a knocking noise in the floor or wall at the back of my bed. You would think that would be easy to fix but I have had all the floorboards up several times, cushioned all the piping and checked all the woodwok in the roof. Will it stop, no chance.
      Every night, usually about 1.30 am, 3.30 am, 5.45 and 7.50am for about 20 minutes. My house is right on the edge of town with farm land next door. No industry. I sometimes wonder if it is in my head, it is driving me nuts.
      Tonight I am going to sleep in my office upstairs to see if I can get a good nights sleep.
      john

    • I was wondering about that as well. I have EHS during times of stress. I get loud bangs while trying to sleep and, more often, the dark room fills with light two or three times as I am trying to drift off. Yesterday, though, I was awake and I went to reach for something, and it felt like I had brushed my arm up against something very hot. The burn was in one thumbsize spot for nearly a minute. I’ve had these electrical misfires before but not like this, and not while wide awake. It was very disturbing. I ended up with a migraine and the lights were very bad once I was finally able to try and sleep.

  • this happens to me somewhat frequently and the pattern seems to be that it happens when I sleep on my back, and if I’m particularly stressed out about not waking up on time or if I just had a stressful dream. It happens mostly as I’m waking up, though I’ve experienced it while falling asleep.
    The noises are usually the sound of a loud explosion, electrical buzzing, or a man shouting my name in distress ( this one freaked me the hell out) .
    It feels a lot like the stuff I hear if I’m having a sleep paralysis episode, except I don’t feel like I can’t move.

  • I’ve had this off and on throughout my adult life, usually during times when I have work-related stress. I have heard multiple versions of it, knocking on my door, a loud sudden buzzing sound (like an electrical shock), and a sudden loud bang sound. In the case of the electrical buzzing and explosions, I woke up with my heart racing. I have also experienced sleep paralysis upon waking from sleep but only once or twice. It certainly is an interesting phenomenon but super annoying when you are just trying to take a nap and now you can’t because your heart is racing at 180 bpm.

  • yikes, i was 2 seconds away from sleep and i just heard a very loud man growling inside my head. woke me up real quick haha, not sure i have this but i’m pretty creeped out

    • Same exact thing happened to me last night… scared the crap out of me. Glad I read this article. Made falling back asleep a little easier.

  • I have had this for 5 years – just on the cusp of going to sleep/dream – I hear/feel a loud whooshing/zapping sound from my left ear right through my brain to right ear. I also see a flash of light or zig zag black and white lines. My medical background is total deafness in left ear due to cerebral venous thrombosis so this may be a possible cause, but my consultant is at a loss to explain it as he has never come across it before, Can happen multiple times in a night then it can go away for a few weeks – very unpredictable. It used to scare me, but I am so used to it – but it can disrupt my sleep some nights.

  • I had a bad dream, happened that I was standing and something exploded in front of me, it woke me up instantly this morning. Never experienced this scary dream. What does this mean?

  • I have been having these type of episodes periodically since 2011. The only common denominator I can associate with each occurrence is stress. This is the first time I have shared this because I didn’t think anyone would believe me. The thought of telling people that “sometimes just as I am falling asleep, I get wakened by a loud zipping sound through my head and I see a flash of light”, sounds a little crazy! True story.

  • I’ve recently been going through this for like the past 2 months maybe 1-2 times a week. I have anxiety and I’m pregnant so it’s hard getting enough sleep as it is. I’m also only 20. I was getting scared to sleep tonight so I decided to see if I was just going crazy or if it was something really happening to me. Sure enough I’m not so crazy lol I wonder if taking anxiety medicine would help get rid of this because it’s extremely scary waking up like this and I’m starting to get worried I’ll deliver early because of it. I wish more research would be done on it.

  • This has just happened to me! Last month it was the buzzing noise. This month it was the bang. I suddenly woke up after (in my dream) somebody knocked my front door at about 19:45 at night, my mum went to open the door and all I heard was “hello” then I suddenly woke up. So freaky.

  • One of the guests reported a high pitch electronic sound, that’s exactly what I heard in my sleep last week. It woke me up, confused. About two weeks ago I woke up to what felt like a door had been slammed shut so loud it shook the house. As far as I know I wasn’t dreaming before it woke me up. I’ve also woken up from someone screaming in my head while sleeping. Weird, right? There was no one around me at all. So I don’t know. Things go boom in the night… I have fibromyalgia, tired and exhaustion are a daily struggle, maybe that has something to do with all this. Thx for listening :)

  • Had this happen for the past 3 nights. the first night i was awoken to what sounded like wind or a whistle. i brushed it off to a storm that was in the area. the next night i woke abruptly to the sound of a power drill or saw. last night i woke to the sound of a rock on glass or something hitting a glass. My wife is always dropping or doing something in her sleep but it wasn’t her. Its a bit unnerving when it happens and due to my over active imagination I was first thinking i somehow was having a paranormal event. Its good to find others are experiencing similar events. I dont have any light flashes or such but only quick sounds that quickly stop once i fully awake . They always seem to come during a sleep pattern of about to fall into sleep or coming out of sleep. going to try some over the counter sleep aids tonight to see if it helps.

  • I really though I was going crazy finally was able to admit it to my wife the sounds are Extremely load its happened a few times if the last Month or so its so loud it feels real

  • Came onto this article to get an answer. I remember the dream I had very clearly. I was in like a “haunted mansion” like attraction setup. It wasn’t scary at all, it was daylight out, no jumpscares or blood or anything. There were art supplies everywhere. The lady giving the tour mentioned how we could barter with whatever we found interesting. Well I just so happened to be looking at something when all of a sudden I hear a person, right in my ear, go “WHOO!!” (In a deep, surprising way, not the cheering “yay the Eagles won” way). Woke me up and scared me so bad! When I came to my senses, I just figured it was the tour lady trying to scare me. Well she scared me out of the dream so kudos to her lol

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