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

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.

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 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.

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
  • 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.

2. Medication

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.

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 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.

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.

1,693 CommentsLeave a comment

  • I started with it a couple of months ago It’s like a loud chime going from left to right in my head usually it only happens once but last night it was twice. I’m glad to know others have this problem – thought I was going mad. I try to look at positively as I know will soon be asleep.

  • I also wake up to the sound of someone breaking the door down, bright lights and probably the worst the sound, the sound of the alarm on my iPhone going off and it’s not.
    These sounds are so realistic that I have to get out of bed and check the house , it’s hard to believe it didn’t really happen !

  • these comments are comforting; last night i experienced this scary ‘gun shot’ explosion in my head at 02.30 hours and felt very alarmed; (3 or 4 shots): i jumped out of bed expecting to hear/see something dramatic but was met with silence. i am female and 70 years old; never had this before. on reflection, after reading the above comments, i think (hope) this relates to slight lack of sleep in recent weeks (only snatches, every 2-3 hours) or possibly, eating late at night.

  • i just found out about this condition, i thought i was going crazy, with me this started only this past year, I’ve noticed it happens when i’m sleep deprived and or extremely tired, I have been under a lot more stress over the past year or so, divorced single father, business owner.. 42 years old… there are times when i have to stay up for 36 hours straight ok i don’t have too but i end up staying up either for work or i can’t sleep on a given night and by the time i get tired enough to try to go to sleep it’s already time to start my next day.. so i just stay up and think to myself i’ll make it up tonight by going to sleep early… whatever the reason when i finally do decide to go to sleep. and i think i’m going to sleep as soon as my head hits the pillow i lay there in within a couple of minutes i’ll start hearing a bang, or a loud knock.. sometimes its like an explosion far off… and i’ll open my eyes and nothing.. it’s nerve wracking.. knowing this is fairly common does help though…i should probably try getting better sleep habits

  • Last night I experienced it. At least I think it classifies. I woke up like I was startled and thought I heard the door opening while asleep and tried to wake up my boyfriend to tell him I was scared. I’ve had jerks before but never any with sounds. I also normally hear things when I’m going to bed or during the early parts of the night. Even now I hear what sounds like someone using a whistle. I’ve seen flashes of light at night while awake and even in my sleep but will get my dreams confused with what is happening in real life. Once I had a dream someone was standing in my doorway and I thought it had actually happened. I have been diagnosed with hypersomnia and I am bipolar but over the past few years it’s been more difficult to stay calm at night. I can’t sleep facing the door with my feet. At any house or room. I always had horrible dreams that way. And I’ve had them the other way to of course. In some dreams I can lucid dream but others I know I’m having a nightmare and try to wake myself but I’m woken by someone into another dream (in these dreams I’m normally being strangled). If anyone has any help or suggestions please let me know. I just had a baby a few months ago.

    • hey harmony congratulations on your baby, as a parent of a newborn i’m sure your also being sleep deprived and tired alot lately, it seems to be a common thread among sufferers from what i’ve read.. so my suggestion is get as much rest as you can, sleep as much as you can when you can, when the baby takes a nap so should you.. if you have a good support system around you (babysitter, family, significant other) ask them to take the baby for a few hours so you can rest.. I hope this helps
      try this out and if it does help please come back and update us… thanks


  • I’ve been experiencing this for a few weeks now and it’s driving me insane. I’m only 15, and every person who experience EHS are close to twenty years older than me, could this be more serious for me because of my age?

    • hey dylan, are you a gamer by any chance? do you stay up really late and then have to get up early? are you really really tired when you go to bed and this happens?

  • I am unsure this actually fits in this category? My experience is one in which I am suddenly awakened with an electrical “zap” or “jolt.” It is often accompanied by sensations of light in conjunction with the jolt. I am in year 6 of having had to fight through the “next days” after occurrence(s). I have seen more doctors than I care to mention. MRI’s, sleep studies, CT scans, all negative. Not one physician has attempted to classify the problem! The last neurologist I visited had never seen or heard of any such a malady. Does anyone suffer from a similar condition? What has been tried with success?

  • I’m twenty-three. This has been a problem in my life from a young age, so I’m not sure if the usual age is inaccurate, or if I’m messed up. It began with the sensation of falling, and evolved into a screeching sound. Like a metal chair being dragged across a concrete floor. Although the description of the light is accurate for me. I thought it was a minor form of seizure, and it’s pretty scary. From reading this, I gather that there are people with way worse of a condition than me, but it’s nice to know I’m not crazy. The occurrence is entirely random for me. I’ve gone years where I haven’t felt a jump, and weeks where I’ll have two or three. Been happening since I was thirteen I think? It’s been a long time. Anyway..thank you for the brain food.

  • This is terrifying, I wake up to sounds of explosions and people screaming at me. It just happened again last night and I was terrified to go back to sleep. I’m relieved to find out what it is and that I’m not alone or crazy. I’m 56 and it has been going on for several years.

  • I experience this almost nightly and it’s terrifying to me. Average age 54? I’m only 36. Not harmful? I’m scared to fall asleep, wake up tired all day and have headaches all the time now. Only been occurring for a couple months. Explain that.

  • They say it’s not harmful but if it is a minor seizure wouldn’t that be harmful? It makes me anxious. I just experienced it twice last night… Yesterday I did have a bad headache I believe from sinus pressure. Its been bad so I took something for it.

  • I can’t even begin to explain how scary this thing is, I heard millions of screaming voices in my head while sleeping and I couldn’t move. Unpleasant is an understatement

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