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?

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.

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

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.

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.

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.

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.


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.

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.

1,828 thoughts on “Exploding Head Syndrome – Harmless But Disturbing”

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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??

  6. 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

  7. 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.

  8. 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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