Exploding Head Syndrome – Harmless But Disturbing

exploding head syndrome

Do you ever hear a sudden loud noise just as you’re falling asleep or waking up, maybe accompanied by a flash of light?

But then when you check your house or ask someone else, you find no possible source of the noise?

If so, it could be that you’ve experienced exploding head syndrome (EHS). The good news is that although it can be quite scary, it’s not believed to be physically harmful.

This sleep disturbance was first documented in 1920 by the scientist Armstrong-Jones, who described it as a ‘snapping of the brain’.

Compared to some other sleep disorders, there hasn’t been so much funding for research into EHS in the years since then. But scientists are slowly starting to understand it better.


How common is exploding head syndrome and who experiences it?

In 2014, researchers in Germany reviewed multiple cases and previous research, with some interesting findings:

  • They found that the average age of onset was 54.
  • More women reported having EHS than men.
  • The average frequency of attacks was between once a day and once a week.
  • The most common symptoms were noise, fear and sudden sensations of light.

Research shows that many young people experience it

In contrast to the research in Germany, researchers at Washington State University in 2015 discovered that many young people also experience EHS. And they didn’t find that women had it more often than men either.

Some of the main points arising from their research include:

  • 18% of the 211 undergraduates they interviewed had experienced it in their lifetime.
  • 16.60% had experienced it more than once.
  • They didn’t find that women had it more often.
  • It was found in 36.89% of people who had a diagnosis of isolated sleep paralysis.
  • 2.8% had clinically significant levels of distress or reduced ability to function.

2019 research finds even higher prevalence rates

In 2019, a team of researchers again looked at how common EHS is, finding much higher prevalence rates than the previous two pieces of research:

  • Out of 199 female undergraduates, 37.19% had experienced it in their lifetime. 6.54% had it at least once a month.
  • Out of 1683 male and female adult participants in a separate study, they found a lifetime prevalence of 29.59%. And 3.89% had monthly episodes.

The team also found associations with other sleep disturbances, such as insomnia, sleep paralysis and nightmares.

2020 research sheds more light

In 2020, a fascinating study into EHS was conducted in a collaboration between the British Broadcasting Company (BBC) and psychologists in the United States and the United Kingdom.

In a survey of 6686 adults, 3286 reported that they had experienced EHS during their lives. 2954 said they had never had EHS.

Interestingly, 446 additional people reported having it, but were excluded due to the likelihood it was a different medical condition or because they reported significant pain during their episodes, which is not typically a diagnostic symptom of EHS.

Of the people who said they did have EHS, 5% said they had it several times a week. 35% had it several times a year, and 40% several times in their lifetime.

And in line with the German study, they also found that women were marginally more likely to have it than men.

It doesn’t cause physical harm

The name exploding head syndrome itself sounds very dramatic, provoking all kinds of violent images in the mind when wondering what the consequences of an episode might be!

The reality is that EHS is seen by organizations such as the American Sleep Association as benign and not associated with pain. However, it can cause a great deal of fear, anxiety and confusion, along with physical symptoms like increased heart rate.


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 of EHS is hearing or feeling a loud and sudden sound. It can feel like it’s coming from inside your head, somewhere in your house, or even outside.

The type of sound varies between people, and might include:

  • The sound of an exploding bomb
  • The sound of a 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

EHS is sometimes accompanied by a sensation of a flashing light. Like the noise though, there’s no actual light source causing it.

flash of light

3. Fear and distress

Most people don’t usually report feeling pain with EHS. 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.

In the BBC collaboration study in 2020, for example, 44.4% of participants reported feeling significant fear during episodes. Interestingly, a smaller number of 25% reported clinically significant distress.

4. Elevated heart rate and breathing

Brian Sharpless Ph.D., who has published several papers on EHS, described in his 2018 research the most common symptoms as:

  • Tachycardia
  • Fear
  • Muscle twitches
  • Respiration difficulty

Interestingly, he also found that visual phenomenon were reported by 27% of people with EHS – a figure he described as “more common than expected”.

5. Accompanying sleep paralysis

As the research at Washington State University found, EHS is sometimes accompanied by sleep paralysis.

Sleep paralysis itself can also be very frightening, so it’s unsurprising that a combination of the two sleep disturbances can cause distress.

6. Worse sleep?

The 2020 study also found interesting effects on people’s sleep in general.

They found people with EHS typically took longer to fall asleep, had shorter sleep duration and worse sleep efficiency.

However, they do note that the differences were not clinically meaningful. I’ve added it here under the symptoms as I think it was interesting that it came up in the study, but it’s not listed as a symptom in sleep disorder guidelines.

Reader EHS poll

I ran a poll of readers for three months to see how often they felt they experienced EHS.

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.

These numbers should be taken with a pinch of salt though, as I only polled readers of this article. So rather than a random sample, it’s people who were probably inspired by their experiences to look it up online.

chart showing the results of a poll about how often readers experience exploding head syndrome

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.
  • A sudden movement in inner ear parts, such as the tympanum (the eardrum), or the tensor tympani (the muscle involved in reducing sound – e.g. the sound of chewing food).
  • Related to fear, stress or anxiety.
  • Calcium signaling impairment.

In 2010, the researchers Thorpy and Plazzi suggsted that EHS might be a form of hypnic jerks, saying:

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.

Going back to the 2020 BBC study again, they asked the participants what they believed caused their EHS. Here are the main causes reported and the percentage of people that endorsed them:

  • Something in the brain – 60.6%
  • Stress – 34.7%
  • Medication side effects – 7.2%
  • Something supernatural – 2.8%
  • Electronic equipment – 2.3%

Treatment

The treatment options for EHS are limited due to the fact that it’s seen as physically harmless, and still not fully understood.

Knowing that it has a name, that you’re not alone in experiencing it, and that it’s not dangerous might be reassuring enough for many people.

However, you might like to consider the following options if you remain concerned:

1. Talk to your primary care provider

Speak to your doctor or physician if you’re concerned by your symptoms and they are causing you distress or loss of sleep.

They might check for other causes, such as headache disorders or seizures. But they can also help reassure you that it’s harmless.

2. Medication

There’s isn’t a cure as such. But one medication which has been used with some success is clomipramine.

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. This could include exercise, walking, yoga, tai-chi, meditation, mindfulness or simple breathing exercises in bed.

4. Practice good sleep habits

Sleep deprivation, exhaustion, and many lifestyle choices can increase the likelihood of disturbed sleep. Try to stick to a regular sleep schedule, and practice good sleep hygiene.

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 self-suggestion at night can be helpful.

Prevention strategies reported by people with EHS

One final look at the results of the 2020 study reveals some interesting possible techniques to cope with EHS.

The study participants were asked what prevention strategies work for them, and how effective they thought they were.

Here are the top methods that people say helped them:

  • Using or refraining from substances, such as drinking alcohol before bed or taking sleep aids like Ambien. It’s not clear in the published study whether more people had success taking or stopping taking substances. It looks to me like drinking alcohol has a positive effect on reducing EHS, but I can’t be sure from the way the data was published!
  • Don’t lie on your back.
  • Got to bed earlier and get enough sleep.
  • Practice mindfulness techniques/relaxation exercises.
  • Get up for a bit if it happens.
  • Try to wake yourself up during an episode.

Your thoughts

Have you experienced EHS? What symptoms did you have, and how did it make you feel?

Feel free to share your story and thoughts in the comments below.

1,862 thoughts on “Exploding Head Syndrome – Harmless But Disturbing”

  1. I have this. It happened just this morning. I heard two knocks that awoke me. Then, after I used the restroom and went back to bed, just as I was about to doze off, it happened again. I just went right back to sleep. It doesn’t shock me anymore. It’s been happening to me since about 1993, when I was 38 years old. The first time, it was the sou d of a telephone ringing. It took me a while to wake up and answer the phone. No one was there. I thought I’d missed the call. I figured it must have been an emergency of some sort since it was the middle of the night. I checked the caller ID, and it showed no call at all. This all kind of freaked me out! I asked my son if he’d heard the phone the previous night and he said “No”. So, I stayed freaked out, a little. But, brushed it aside. Then, a few weeks later it happened again! That’s when I realized it had to be some kind of sleep phenomenon. Then, it switched to door knocks. The first time that happened, I ran to the front door, and no one was there! Again, that freaked me out, because it was the sound of knocking! So, now it’s been 27 years of this! It isn’t frequent, and now, when it happens, I know what it is. Still…it’s nice to have confirmation that it is a benign “brain thing”!

  2. Last night I woke from a deep sleep at 3.45 am from 4 loud knocks on my bedroom door. Scared the bejeezus out of me. Thought someone was inside the house. When I realised it was just me hearing things, it still took me a long time to get back to sleep. I’m an insomniac and a very light sleeper. Also have high blood pressure and strokes are in my family. I’m also a headache and migraine sufferer. I have had this happen to me a number of times before, including when in deep sleep and just after falling asleep.

  3. Hi. So my case comes with underlying conditions. I’m desperate for help. It’s gotten much worse as the year has progressed.
    So. I’m 34, diagnosed with ADHD3/4 yrs ago, depression, anxiety… So big 3.
    Headaches started around the same time, got gradually worse to 5day migraines.
    Exploding Head Syndrome started this year. I always had the hypnic jerk thingy, but only if I was lying on my back.
    The explosions started as kind of bangs, like someone slamming a door. They changed over time to the sound and flash of lighting but all this in my head and before I can even fall asleep.

    Now it feels like I’m being electrocuted, sometimes it’s while I’m sitting in front of the computer at work or sitting talking to someone, focus on a point for a while, kind of seizures or spasms. Going to bed those nights I already know what to expect and I dread it. Those are the nights I hope to fall asleep as soon as I hit the pillow.
    It’s painful.

    If anyone has any advice that works. Knows of a study?

  4. Mine was like am actual explosion with a flash of brilliant white lights.
    First time it happened I was scared shook up not knowing what had happened inside my head or if it was outside my head.
    2nd time I knew it was from inside my head because I could feel the effect all over my skull and it hurt my ears.
    hope that helps

  5. With many others here glad to know That there wasn’t an attempt to a break in on my home. I passed out on the couch near my back door “Basement room”, woke up to my door being jiggled and an attempted banging to open with the door while it was still locked. And I laid in fear for a few minutes deciding if it was real or not then Getting up seeing my gf who is a light sleeper still sleeping. and then I even checked outside nothing at all and it wasn’t even windy. So this all had me panicking and wondering what was going on until I found this form. Thank you all!!!

  6. Adreanna M Alzubi

    I know I’m not tripping. I’m 29 and it’s been two times that I wake up to the sound of someone trying to get in, but when I check it’s no one. and no one else seems to have heard what I heard. This is helpful knowing that there are other people hearing things, but I also recently decided my life more into God I’m hoping this isn’t a spiritual battle.

  7. It only happens to me about every 6 months. The first couple of times , it was a loud bang right after I fell asleep. I thought it was a goast because my dog would bark. This last time I only heard knocking on the door but my dog didnt bark so I knew it wasn’t real (she barks at the wind). It wakes me so abruptly that I’m unable to fall back asleep for hrs.

    1. I’ve had similar experiences over the years. I begin to fall asleep and then I hear a door slam. It’s loud. Disturbing.

  8. I’m 45, and I get woken up by knocks, or doors slamming, I am a sober person. my spouse works out of town for 3 to 6 weeks at a time, so I’m home alone a lot. it’s terrifying. At first, I thought this was something paranormal, and I’m beyond grateful that it is not! I use to watch scary movies and now I’ve stopped because I am so afraid, but I do find comfort knowing that this is a common thing and that there are other people out there that are tormented by this.

  9. I was beginning to drift off in bed tonight when I heard a gunshot coupled with a white explosive light. My first thought was my gun in my closet went off. Nope. I checked everyone’s rooms to see if they’d woken up. Nope. Walked around the house, thoroughly confused that I was the only one who heard it. These past couple of years I have experienced random bouts with internal tremors that suddenly appeared. I’ve had a total of about 6 of those, but not for many months now. As anyone else experienced both of these oddities? I’m 66 years old and have no health problems, nor do I take any meds except low dose of zoloft.

  10. I am glad to hear about this syndrome. My husband died tragically 11 years ago. Before he died I awoke lots of mornings around 4 am. Would get up to go to washroom and he was up getting ready for work. We would say goodbye I would tell him to be careful. Then go back to bed. This morning I didn’t. Since then a lot of mornings I wake up around 4 am. It was more frequent just after then it is now. But still happens. I also hear the doorbell ring, loud noises, dogs barking, they seem to wake me out of a deep sleep, last night the bark was so close to me, right behind my head. I knew it was not my dog that was laying by my feet but I still told him to be quiet.

  11. For about ten years, (starting 50-55 years old) About once I month I wake out of a sound sleep With either 3 loud Knocks or slamming of a door. My heart does pound!!! At first I would get up, check it out (scary because I live alone). It happened at my son’s house last weekend and he said there was a SYNDROME! I have high blood pressure with history of strokes in my family. It was so reassuring to read this! Thank you

    1. I had these knocking noises in my bedroom on my door and wardrobes. They sound so real and loud. They usually happens when i think when i have light sleep. I have insomnia. They happen every few months more or less. Then I can’t sleep. And takes a long time to forget about. I think it’s a bad ghost who wants to upset me. That is so scary to me. I can’t sleep for many nights.

  12. Richard Brown

    I have experienced a very loud noise like a door slam just prior to falling to sleep. I read the articles above and can relate to the remarks to hearing disorder, movement of the eardrum, etc. I have woke up in the night a few years back with Virgo so bad I fell into the wall when I tried to sit-up on the bedside. I now wear hearing aids and have lost maybe 90 % of hearing in my left ear. ( have to use a Cross-over Bluetooth aid in the left ear. I get very dizzy if I look up while laying flat on my back.
    Inner-Ear components movement makes sense to me.

  13. Yes I have been having this like 10 times an hour for the last few months…

    I get dizzy with a sudden almost numbing feeling in my whole head. And I hear a noise similar to the sound in the game counter strike after you get hit with a flash bang grenade. And my Vision kind of does that same thing too. And it’s happening about every 5 minutes or so.
    Not sure if this is the same thing this article is talking about. Do you have any insights for this?

    1. Hi Dylan
      If this is happening during the daytime, it’s not likely to be this sleep disorder. I would get your doctor to check you out.
      Regards
      Ethan

    2. You might want to see a specialist, a neurologist or a ear specialist. The number of times you are getting this on the daily is a lot. Do you know if you’ve passed out? Get that checked out. Talk to your family doctor for a specialist referral.

    1. I had this about a week before my birthday, I was thinking about something that happened a year ago, I’m not sure if that caused this, but when it happened, I couldn’t help but think about it, it sounded like static from the slender man game and a white face jumped out at me in the darkness, it was pure white, not any other color, so I don’t know if seeing a face is part of Exploding Head Syndrome.

  14. Wow. I finally know I’m not going mad:-) I hear the explosion, with light, about once a month when I’m dropping off. I just assumed it was me (I had a serious head injury in a car accident which resulted in sleep paralysis, nightmares and ptsd). Only in the past few weeks have I searched about it because I keep hearing screaming as I wake up (which my partner never hears).
    I feel much better now knowing I’m not bonkers! thank you.

  15. I have only had this very loud bang and a bright flash once, I woke up and it sounded like a car back firing or a door slamming. I was very scared. That was last week hope it goes away now.

  16. I hear doorbells, car horn and loud noises like heavy sheets of metal marking sharp noises as if it was slid against one another but it’s real sharp. I also wake up from body jerking. I don’t sleep well average maybe 4 hrs a night and some nights no sleep. I also have ringing in my ears nonstop. I wish there was something to be done for it.

    1. I have had this for years with explosion noises or do or knocking sometimes occurring repeatedly. I even installed CCTV outside my house as I thought someone was knocking on my door at night, so much so that I wanted to move home. I eventually mentioned it to my gp who just laughed at me and told me that she didn’t know what I was talking about, so I let it go. Interestingly I have a parathyroid disease with a constantly raised serum calcium and was wondering whether this might be relevant. However, I have decided not to mention it to ant go lest I be classed as insane!

    2. I hear doors slamming and light switches, even when I’m home alone… just before I heard a door slam and I looked back and the door was wide open but it happens way more frequently than once a day or month I experience this every hour or so

  17. It never occurred to me to do a little research about the condition until this morning after experiencing an episode. Now I can give it a proper name.

    It happens to me at least 1 or 2 times in a month. I learned to cope with it because of two historical conditions: hard of hearing (long history) and focal seizure (recently diagnosed). It occurred to me that it might be related to any of those conditions, so I didn’t worry that much.

  18. I hear the closing of doors in the day time. Check all doors – all open. I’m wide awake
    Use to hear the phone ringing.
    Wide awake.
    Am I schizophrenic?

    1. Hi Pat
      It’s impossible to say what might be the cause – this is something to discuss with your personal doctor. Diagnosing schizophrenia is more complex than just basing it on whether you sometimes hear noises. It requires a fuller assessment.
      Regards
      Ethan

      1. I hear my sister screaming. It’s very loud and very realistic and it sounds like she’s in pain. It happens at least once a month for the past two years while I’m falling asleep but the first couple of times I actually thought it was my sister screaming since sometimes she gets a bit spooked at night, but usually when that happens it’s only a shout (these screams are longer and sound scarier and seem to happen from outside my door) and my mom and dad run to her room. I actually just discovered it today because when it happened no one else reacted and she had no recollection of screaming and neither did her boyfriend who was sleeping next to her. It leaves me with quite a big headache after, but I think that’s just because I think about it a little too much.

        1. The last couple of nights I have felt like my head was loudly being banged against a wall or something very hard repeatedly and loudly, as if my skull is cracking, only to wake up, perfectly fine, besides an elevated heart rate and a sweat, in my bed. I’m surprised because although I suffer from anxiety disorders which have been exacerbated lately, and have been pulling all-nighters this week as I finish up final exams, I am only 22, and it seems this usually affects older people. I am very sleep deprived at the moment but this is making me scared to go back to sleep because of how terrifying it feels in the moments before I wake up. I take clonidine to help sleep at night, along with Benadryl, but it is not doing anything helpful for this…

  19. I started getting this a few years ago whenever I have strong opiates or benzos like valium. Used to be able to take these drugs no problem. Now, whenever I take them I get EHS all night long everything I drift off to sleep. I also have tinnitus which doesn’t help.

  20. Had this for ages, started with doorbell, and knocking at door.
    Now “mum” is thrown into the mix, and a bright light has started too.
    Door slamming may be my neighbour :)
    Funny how common it is, but no one seems to discuss it.

    1. I started getting the loud explosions or like a truck crashed into my house, but last year it turned into the loud “cop knock”, three loud bangs like they’re at my door. Now sometimes it’s a super loud doorbell. Like your experience, it’s not like what’s been described for EHS. And it’s not when I’m drifting off or waking up, it’s when I’m deep asleep and I wake up terrified with my heart pounding.

  21. Finally a name for it! It happens about once a month. Loud explosion and light. I used to jump up but now I know and just go back to bed. Once my heart rate calms down. I also hear my kids yell for me and they aren’t. I am a light sleeper, now I know why. This happens when I’m in a deep sleep. Dr Oz did a segment on sleep paralysis. Praying and meditation helps a bit.

  22. Jose R. lopez III

    I just woke up at about 2:45 am. I heard what sounded like a fist scraping against my wall next to me which was follows by a loud banging of a door. I wasn’t able to sleep two days ago, because I heard the noises again so I slept on my sister’s bed as she was out of town and I heard the banging noises again. I asked my dad as he was awake in the living room I heard the noises. He said no. I described the noises to him, and he said no he hadn’t heard the noises. My legs and arms feel numb, and my neighbors have said that I look tired. I think I also have exploding head syndrome cause I remember a few years ago as a kid, I woke up from a nightmare and it jerked me awake and I woke up sitting up.

  23. I have been having the door slamming on and off for several years. This occurs about every few weeks. Also, we have woods behind my bedroom. Many times I have been awoken by banging on my window. To the point I have gotten out of bed with a flash lite checking our deck to see if a bird killed itself. No way 3 days ago I had the slamming doors all day. I even banged both ears hard to stop it but no luck. I wish a reason for this could be found.

  24. I was sleeping tonight and heard a very loud knocking on my window (I think) and I just lay there burning in fear. My first thoughts were that someone was standing outside my window and if I remembered to lock all my windows. I eventually was able to pick up my phone and call my sister. I looked online and found this site. Could a bad dream have this effect??

  25. I haven’t slept very well for years. I fall asleep at around 8 and always wake at around 1 or 2am. I then think of many things in my head. I sometimes feel I may grind my teeth also. I do drink wine in the early evening to help me relax. Lately, I think I have had jerks that occur either in my whole body or just limbs. I stress out from that a lot. Keeping in mind my stress level is high. Nerves too. I worry a lot especially upon waking. I even think I may have had exploding head syndrome. Very scary. I’m reading about these jerks that I seem to get and I can’t fall back asleep because I worry about bringing them on. Any advice. Signed. A tired lady

  26. I have had this happen to me multiple times, not often though and I didn’t know there was actually a name for it. Mine always sounds like someone screaming in my ear and every time it happens I ask my husband if he heard someone scream and he always says no.
    Also I don’t know if this is maybe a form of sleep paralysis but some times when I’m having a nightmare, I will wake up from it and my brain will be telling me to open my eyes but I just can’t do it and I feel this fear that once I do open my eyes I’ll see something.

  27. Clomipramine – I did NOT find this helpful for me over the long-term. Although it seemed to help with the after-effects of experiencing symptoms, it did not seem to mitigate the severity or frequency of symptoms. In fact, it seemed to aggravate ocular symptoms, and cause new forms of ocular symptoms, namely seeing an after-image of my retina when blinking when waking up / going to sleep.

    Clonazepam – this was somewhat helpful to mitigate severity and frequency of symptoms, but I suspect only by lessening the sleep anxiety that might have made symptoms more frequent/severe, and lessened the sense of shock in response to symptoms. I think there were long-term-use ill-effects and I experienced severe withdrawal effects. I think this is good for short-term relief.

    Carbamazepine – this has been very helpful over the long-term, especially when combined with Gabapentin, although sleep is still very bad.

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