Exploding Head Syndrome – Harmless But Disturbing

exploding head syndromeAre 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

Many young people experience it

Researchers at Washington State University in 2015 found that many young 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 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

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.

flash of light

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 heartbeat, 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.

Poll results

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.

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 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

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.

2. Medication

There’s isn’t a cure as such, but in severe cases, your doctor might prescribe a tricyclic 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.

I highly recommend trying mindfulness techniques. And you might find it helpful to do some simple relaxation exercises in bed.

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 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 auto-suggestion at night can be helpful.

Your thoughts

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.

1,747 CommentsLeave a comment

  • It is 6:02 AZ time. At 5:30am there was a flash of light with flash bang right in my face it just woke me up. It scared the heck out me. It is the first time it has happened but I am under a huge amount of stress and my younger brother recently passed. I don’t sleep much anyway. Not painful just scary. I am 57 it’s never happened before I hope it’s a one time occurrence. Thank you for this site. I know I am not crazy.

  • I experience this when just falling asleep it’s a really loud explosion like a bomb going off &it lights up the Bedroom I then get headache & it takes me a while to get back to sleep because I am scared it will happen again.I am suffering with an ear infection so that could have caused it but this is not the first time.It is reassuring to know I am not the only one who experience this …

  • I was just falling asleep, when I heard someone call my name very loudly in my ear. I was so convinced I had heard it I called my husband who was still up watching TV, he said no, he hadn’t heard anything. Left me feeling shaken.

  • Hi. I have been having this EHS for years.
    I did not know what it was. This morning I was half sleep half woke ( drifting to sleep I guess) . It seemed as though i say a line of thin lights falling from the ceiling and as they fell ,they fell on me and i felt in my body a jerk. Then woke up.

    There was a time i was sleep some years ago i saw someone point a gun at me and i heard it shoot. I jumped in my dream to dodge the bullet. I was sleep mind you but my body I fell off the bed into the floor for real. That was so weird. But I dodged the bullet in my dream but in my women state I feel off the bed like I was dodging a bullet.

    I hear pops, or gunshots a lit in my head and it wakes me .

    I happened to come across this article this morning.

    It was very helpful. Thank you.

    And I do see that many people have this too.
    Blessings to everyone in Jesus name.

  • A few years ago I was just drifting off while watching TV and jumped out of my skin when I heard what I can only explain as a very loud crackle like an electrical explosion. I was alone and check the rooms around me even though I knew it was in my head but had to check. Thank goodness for google, it provided much reassurance.
    Last night and after a stressful couple of days I was drifting off in bed with the TV on and heard 3 loud bangs like someone hitting a saucepan with a metal soon. I convinced myself it must have been on the TV until it happened again shortly afterwards it’s then that I thought I wonder if it’s exploding head syndrome so advised my brother earlier today incase anything happens to me so it was a relief to read this eve that others hear banging pans too. I have never been diagnosed with titinus but believe I have had it off and on since childhood, I’ve a feint hissing going on as I type this. I’ve never discussed it with a doctor.

  • Last night at 3am I awoke to what I thought was a gunshot in my home. I awoke saying “Oh my God”! My husband awoke and just looked at me because everything was ok. I was terrified because I thought someone was in our home and fired a gun. After a several seconds. I realized nothing had happened. Our dogs were not barking. The house was fine. My heart was pounding and I was breathing fast. My husband held me and told me everything was ok. I have had in the past where I awoke to someone yelling my name very loud. But, I never gave it much thought. The gun shot prompted me to Google, hence finding this article. I plan to talk to my Dr about this. I do suffer from insomnia and I am 43.

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