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.

1,719 CommentsLeave a comment

  • So far I’ve woken up two different times to sounds no one else heard. First was the tsunami siren in my town. Tonight it was a loud electrical beep, every time I shut my eyes…until I called out my boyfriend’s name asking if he heard it,there was a louder long beep then nothing. Both times my heart was racing!

  • I’m leaving this because I just woke up, kind of terrified, from what sounded like a combination of exploding glass, a scream, and an alarm being sounded at my head. I’m not sure what it was but it was scary waking that way. It’s the second time in a month I woke up that way. I checked on my daughter and she seemed to be briefly disturbed in her sleep as well but did not wake……. Ugh, it’s got to be my nerves. I do recall am anxiety provoked nightmare before waking (a dream where I was looking for something, searching, in a dimly lit area, and a dream about work).

  • i get sudden jumpscares when trying to fall asleep. But sometimes, i get a superloud thing where it sounds like there is a helicopter in my room when im watching videos in bed.

  • Over the last few weeks I have been woken up early in the morning by what sounds like knocking on my door ? This sound is not heard by anyone else so I know it isn’t there but it’s scary as hell.

  • I’m a 16 year old girl. I was falling asleep and I had a dream I saw my grandpa he passed away like 7 years ago when I was smaller and he looked stronger and healthier in the dream and he was around my family laughing but It was only a 5 second glimpse of him then it went black and I heard screams of two women yelling no and stop for a couple seconds like they were in danger or something and then at the end of the screaming there was big thump like someone fell down the stairs or something exploded idk. And I remembered right after the black out I was having a physical panic attack and I woke up n couldn’t breathe and was scared. Is this a vision? Because I can’t lose anymore people in my life?

    • Hi Jay
      Although it sounds scary, I don’t personally think it was a vision of losing people. It sounds like a bad dream to me, and perhaps something that would be good to talk to your family about so you can express how it made you feel.
      Regards
      Ethan

  • I’m typing this after I just woke up from what sounded like a fire alarm going off in my head. This has been going on for a few months now and I still get unsettled by it. Sometimes the sound will be disoriented screaming(which is the spookiest one for me) or a group of people whispering kind of like a ritual. I’ve also noticed that once I hear the noises I can no longer move my body.

    • I’ve literally had this exact thing happen to me about 30 mins ago. I live in a college dorm, and I woke up and SWORE the fire alarm was going off, and so I got up and I was about to start evacuating when I realized that literally no one else had heard it. Even my roommate looked at me like I was crazy.

    • Omg!!! Wtf is in our heads?? I was literally awake trying to sleep. In the first occurrence, I thought I was hearing screams and the 2nd occurrence happened as I was falling asleep. I saw a blurry vision, felt paralyzed and kept hearing loud hammering bangs. I started praying it away!! I have a lot of stress and anxiety and this started after my car accident which was very traumatic for me. I moved my kid and myself away from the room into my sister’s and looked it up. This is crazy.

  • Wow this had been happening to me for a while now, it got really weird last night though…sounded like a loud buzz then a stove clicking to turn on then a zap of like electric followed by me feeling paralyzed and gasping for air….I dont like it. I only got 3 hours of sleep now…im scared to go back to sleep.

  • I have been suddenly awakened from sound sleep by different sounds, very loud and clear – sometimes a bell. Sometimes a deep whistle. Once it was a very deep male voice right in my ear accompanied by a breeze across my face like someone blowing breath on me. Years ago I was awakened 2 nights in a row by what sounded like a huge door slamming shut. I woke my husband but he did not hear the sound. The 3rd night we had just gone to bed and as soon as we turned out the light something slammed the dresser in our room really hard. We were both awake when it happened and it scared us pretty good.

  • I’ve just recently started experiencing this. I feel like I’m in some sort of purgatory between sleep and awake. I hear people yelling at me, sometimes my name. It starts off quiet but quickly gets closer like a crowd running at me. I feel a strange jerk near the bottom of the back of my head and I violently wake up like I had a nightmare and become very anxious and nauseous. Sometimes I go back to sleep and it just happens again.

  • I have never told a soul about my head explosions! This has been happening to me since I was a young child. It’s sounds like a cannon going off in my head & then i see a gray cloud. It lasts only a moment or two & usually it’s during the day-not associated with sleeping.

  • I have had this since childhood. The sound is either a door being slammed or magazines slapping a table. I only hear when I’ve just woken up and haven’t gotten out of bed. The sound repeats, with no apparent pattern, for about a minute. I used to get annoyed thinking someone in the house was making the noise, but now that I live alone I realized it’s not real. Now, I lie still and count how many times I hear the noise. It’s nice to know I’m not the only one.

  • I think I’ve been experiencing this for most of my life, maybe a couple times a month? It’s hard to say exactly how long it’s been happening because for me the experience is so benign that it doesn’t really stand out in my mind. I hear a loud noise, I’m startled awake, I recognize that it’s just in my head, and I immediately fall back asleep. Usually, it’s a very intense, difficult to describe rushing sound inside my head. I have also occasionally heard what sounds like someone suddenly and loudly saying my name in my ear. On rare occasions, I have heard a loud bang like something very heavy has fallen on the floor, but in the morning there is no evidence that anything has fallen, so I’m guessing that’s also EHS.
    For me this feels like a variation on a run-of-the-mill hypnic jerk. I’ve always thought it was basically the same thing as startling awake after dreaming that I’m falling. It never really occurred to me that this isn’t something that everybody experiences until I came across an article about EHS. I guess I’m one of the lucky ones who doesn’t experience something truly terrifying.

  • At last I realize I am not going mad. I have had left temporal lobe epilepsy since brain tumor excision 22yrs ago but only this year have the night noises begun. My noises vary from screaming in my ear to falling metallic objects down the wall beside me or a voice in the room which quietly says a few words that mean nothing, that’s not frightening but the other noises sound ‘angry and aggressive’ they affect my fibrillating heart and my anxiety soars. I reach for Valium not good but how can I calm down and sleep?

  • This usually happens to me as I’m falling asleep. It starts off as a kind of electrical screaming noise that gets louder and louder until I think my eardrums are going to burst. With it comes a massive feeling of anxiety and I feel like there is something in the room with me. I can’t open my eyes and I can’t move or speak until the sound dies down. My heart beats all over the place and it’s terrifying. Now I know what it is I can cope with it a bit better, but for a while I thought I was going crazy!

  • Last night I woke up out of a dead sleep to a screeching sound, like a car does before it screeches, but it was a creepy kind of sound. Not sure I ever heard a crash sound. It was 2:00AM on the dot. I checked my honey; out cold, still breathing. Slowly I crawled out of bed and looked out onto my back porch, crossed into the dining room making my way around the kitched and living room; nothing out of the norm. I went out front, outside and there were creeking sounds of the houses settling but that was it. So I went back inside and checked the local news for any crashes and found nothing. It was an eerie feeling/sound. Freaked me out!

  • i heard this loud noise that was almost like a blender or coffee grinder, but it was as loud as a lawnmower. scared the hell out of me, and i’m just hoping it doesn’t happen again

  • Last night, after I went to sleep, I thought my mom was yelling for me. I quietly opened my door (to see if she actually did) and found she was asleep. This experience frightened me because I honestly thought there was some sort of paranormal activity… Lol. I am 14 and have had similar situations happen to me in the past. Even though I am apart of the minority, I feel some relief knowing other people experience this too. When I was younger, about six or seven, I lost a tooth and woke up believing there was a light going to my pillow. I have never had an explanation to this until now.

  • I woke up this morning, hearing a load pop or a bang, leaving me a headache for the majority of the day. This never happened to me before, and I was a little upset. But the pain eventually left.

  • This happened to me this morning…it sounded like a stack of magazines slapping down on a hard wood floor. Jolted me awake. I could have sworn something fell. Immediately googled and found this info — nice to know I’m not nuts.

  • I am so comforted to know that I was the only person experiencing this. In fact I think it will help even knowing this. When it first happened for me it was this morning at 3 am, it is currently 5 am. And it literally sounds like a smoke alarm for me but the tone is a little lower. I honestly thought that it was the smoke alarm so I got up and actually took it out then went back to sleep. THEN IT HAPPENED AGAIN. At this point, I had a panic attack and got very scared bc I knew it wasn’t the smoke alarm. So then I looked it up and this is what I found. Now I’m thankful I’m not the only one. Although I found it odd that it would happen to a 19 year old Male such as myself. Thank you to the person who created this website, you are truly a godsend.

    • Hi Fellow Ethan
      You’re very welcome – I’m happy to hear the website has been helpful to you!
      Regards
      Ethan

  • I was taking a brief nap on my couch this afternoon and i heard a loud pop, I do recall the flash of light too. I immediately woke up confused and afraid. It was so weird. I’ve never experienced this before. I am more tired and high anxiety ridden these days…so weird. It was insanely loud and clear.

  • Not sure if this is me but it is so very similar. I hear my dog bark loud and frantic and it wakes me with a jolt. But she never barked. I asked my husband and he says no. It happens very, very rarely but it causes me anxiety when I am waken abruptly by it. I shake and feel anxious to the point I cannot fall back to sleep for a good 2 – 3 hours nights that it happens. I also have it happen on extremely rare occasions when I am napping during the day. I am a stay at home mom, only 36, and sometimes I take a nap during the day because I been up late and got up way to early. But it is even more rare for it to happen then. But when it does, it is just as anxiety-inducing as when it happens at night.

  • 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

      Alex

  • 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.

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