Exploding Head Syndrome – Harmless But Disturbing

cartoon explosionAre 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. This is a relatively uncommon sleep disorder which belongs in the parasomnia category.

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

It was thought for a long time to be most common in people over the age of 50, with younger generations experiencing it less often.

However, researchers at Washington State University in 2015 found that many young people also experience exploding head syndrome. In their study, 18% of the 211 undergraduates they interviewed had experienced it in their lifetime, with 16.60% on a regular basis.

The name exploding head syndrome is misleading though, as it conjures up all kinds of horror film images. Fortunately, people who experience this do wake up with their heads intact!

To understand why it has such a dramatic name, let’s take a look at the symptoms.

Exploding head syndrome symptoms

1. The main symptom is imagining you hear a very loud and sudden sound, for example:

  • The sound of a bomb.
  • The sound of gunshot.
  • A loud clash of cymbals.
  • The sound of a door slamming.
  • An extremely loud rushing sound.
  • People screaming or shouting.
  • An electrical buzzing sound.
  • Any other loud sound which can’t be described exactly.

2. 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. They may, however, be scared or upset when it wakes them up.

3. Exploding head syndrome is sometimes accompanied by a sensation of a flashing light.

4. People may feel it affects their breathing – with a gasping of breath or difficulty breathing on waking.

5. People may experience an episode of sleep paralysis, sometimes taking the form of a reported out-of-body experience.

6. An episode can last for between just a few seconds and a few minutes. It usually occurs when falling asleep or waking up, but not during the main stages of sleep.

The researcher J M Pearce conducted a detailed study of 50 patients with exploding head syndrome in 1989 to analyze what kinds of symptoms they experienced, which you can read here for further information.

Poll results

You can see from the graph below that fortunately the majority of readers don’t experience episodes of exploding head syndrome very often.

Out of 7,752 readers, 3,250 said they experience it rarely. Only 911 said they experience it nearly every day.

graph showing the exploding head syndrome poll results

Causes of exploding head syndrome

The causes of exploding head syndrome still aren’t properly understood, but there are two main theories that have been proposed:

  • Minor seizures in the temporal lobe.
  • Involuntary movements of parts of the ear, such as the tympanum (the ear drum), or the tensor tympani (the muscle involved in reducing sound – e.g. the sound of chewing food).

In his study, Pearce wasn’t so convinced by these explanations though; he believed it would be better to classify exploding head syndrome along with other biological mechanisms that occur when falling asleep.

This includes the muscular jerks that many people experience, known either as hypnic jerks, sleep starts or nocturnal myoclonus.

More recently in 2010, the researchers Thorpy and Plazzi also wrote that they believe exploding head syndrome is a variant of hypnic jerks. They believe it’s more likely to be a variant of sleep starts than a parasomnia. They conclude 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. Educations and reassurance are the cornerstones of therapy. If the symptoms occur multiple times a night and cause insomnia, a hypnotic may be useful.

Treatment

1. Talk to your primary care doctor if you’re concerned by your symptoms. Your doctor can help reassure you that it’s harmless. And they may prescribe medication such as clomipramine.

2. There have been limited attempts to work out which other medications can help. There’s still isn’t a cure for EHS, but researchers have had some success with Tompimirate, Clonezapam, Clomipramine and Nifedipine. You can find out more about the effectiveness of these in this study.

3. Stress is known to be a factor that can increase the frequency and intensity of some parasomnias and sleep starts. If you suffer from stress or anxiety at night, you might find it helpful to try some specific relaxation techniques before sleeping.

4. Being very tired is thought to increase the likelihood of some parasomnias and sleep starts. So try to keep to a stable sleep schedule, and make lifestyle choices following the guidance of good sleep hygiene.

5. It’s important not to become anxious about falling asleep. Try not to worry that you’ll experience exploding head syndrome and that something bad will happen to you. Although it’s understandably quite disturbing, it’s not known to have any damaging effect on you.

Your thoughts

(Please read before leaving a comment)

I’d like to thank all the many readers who’ve shared their story and offered ideas and support to others.

Unfortunately, I won’t be able to respond personally to any more comments on this article due to time constraints.

However, I’ll leave the comments open so that you can continue to share your thoughts, and communicate with other readers who have similar experiences.

Thanks

Ethan

 

1,583 CommentsLeave a comment

  • I have had this happen years ago a few times within a very stesssful year. It always happens in the early morning nearing the time I would wake up. The sound wakes me up suddenly and scares me. The sound has varied. This just happened this morning and the only way I can describe it is an extremely loud metal bell in my head being hit with a stone. It was so loud that when I awoke scared from it, the next thought was, there is no way that sound was from within the house. The sound always sounds like it’s inside my head but so real. My ears have been ringing ever since. I googled what happened and found this page. Thank you for writing this so I know that I’m not alone in it happening. I am again going through major life changing events that linger before me that I have no control over and emotionally have been taxed. For me at least, I believe this is a trauma/stress involuntary response to that stress. I am leaving this post in case it can heap someone else. I am 43 years old.

  • Everyone seems to be experiencing noises or bangs but mine tend to be loud shouting or yelling. Sometimes it’s GET UP!!! As from no where or my name. I wake startled at first from it then realize it it’s just in my head because I’m pretty sure there’s no way my husband and kids could sleep through deep voices yelling in the house

  • I told my doctor that i was falling asleep and all of a sudden my neck jerked backwards and i heard “gates slam shut”…it was the only description i had…he just looked at me confused. This is the first time i have ever read anything about this….it was very scary. It gives me a peave of mind to know im not crazy. But its still a stranhe thing

  • I believe it’s a form of muscle memories. I get woken up by the sounds of bookshelves crashing down and the last sound is a thud, as though I can feel it shake the floors. It actually reminds me of a time when I used to own a cat who would be mischievous find him licking his wounds from the experience. I would spring awake in a flight or fight to action mind set. Before that, it was sirens which would cause me to panic, but as of late its the crashing of books. I also believe it’s a way for the body to wake you up as to tell you your sleeping too much or time to move or in sleep apnea. Alarming the body to keep functioning. Medication is not the answer research is found out how and why it’s happening, is a better answer than chemicals. Thanks for the read on all the comments..

  • I have never experienced this in my life until the past couple of nights. I feel like there is a bright light like a lightbulb has burst in my face. I experience a quick jolt which seems painful at the time but I’m sure it really isn’t . It has scared the heck out of me so I decided to Google to see if anyone else has experience this. I’m glad to know I’m not alone

  • Hey guys, it seems that all of you have experienced that syndrome, well yeah, me too, but like this morning when i woke up was the first time or the first time i have ever noticed that.
    Well, I was sleeping and like half of me was kind of awake, I was dreaming about a GTA San Andreas game and primary people Haha I know it’s strange, but somebody was talking that primary people thought of an one letter and they created words 5mins long to say and he gave me to see.
    He said MMMMMMM and created a sentence (I don’t remember it really good) : might I ask you to make me a shirt … … and for a long time . And then he started with the letter B and at this point as he said “Be happy…” cow-bells, crash cymbals crashed, as it happened I woke up with my eyes closed, and noticed that it’s a little brighter on the outside even though I was keeping my eyes clised fir the whole night and ended up waking after the sound exactly at 7:00 AM

    (Sorry for any mistakes, i am not from english-talking country)

  • I have been having this banging sound nearly every time i try to sleep on my back for about 2 years now. It usually occurs when you try to relax to try to sleep. The feeling is like the air traveling from your lungs up through your mouth to exhale somehow took a turn and went out your ear drums airways instead. It is a nightmare. It also have to do with your neck position when you are sleeping. Sleeping on my side is my cure but i want the the healed completely. Please any advise. Thanks.

  • I have had several episodes of this in the past but last night as the worst I have ever had. Just dropping off to sleep dreaming I was walking down the road with someone behind me with a dog. A loud shot woke me up – sure the dog was dead. No dog, no gun, no explanation. Scary

  • I would dream then I would hear a lawn mower, my mom says it is completely normal. This happened months ago. Haven’t had it since but It was so weird. My mom says she had it a lot.

  • I was in a car crash in September of 2015, I’m completely dead in my left ear they say my ear drum is perfect but I can’t hear anything out of it, about 2-3 times a month which now is more frequent, I hear loud noises, lights when I shut my eyes, a panic attack like feeling trying to fall asleep I have actually been to the er for the panic attack, I’m healthy they said, I never had this until after my accident. Maybe you could use me as a study??? To find out where I have been damaged and see if it can’t be fixed? Or at least try to pin point the location of this mysterious illness. I hope to get in contact with someone about this it’s very troubling and comes with headaches, sharp stabbing pain in my skull when this happens so please contact me il be a study and we can work on this thing together

    • Hi Kristy
      Thanks for your comment. Sorry to hear you’ve been having difficulty since the car crash. Unfortunately, I don’t do any studies – I’m a mere writer! So I can’t help you with that. I don’t know of any EHS studies being done at the moment which might be interested in your case. Perhaps speaking to your primary care doctor in your region and country might help you find a sleep specialist who would be interested.
      Regards
      Ethan

  • I seriously think im experiencing this. I just woke up to an experience that felt like a door slamming in my face. And it kept happening over an over. I couldn’t ignore it. It was driving me insane. I felt it and heard it inside my head. Even when I was trying to go back to sleep. And it happened in a rhythm. I can’t calm myself down. I’m pretty sure I need to be for this to stop happening.

  • I experienced this twice last night…. first time I awoke to what sounded like my dog scratching at the door. My body felt like it was vibrating or shaking. Once I felt like I was okay, I got up to make sure I didn’t leave my dog outside. Thankfully, I didn’t, she was sleeping sound on her bed. The second one sounded like my screen door slammed shut. This time I didn’t wake to weird body sensations though.

  • For MANY years, I wondered if I was going insane due to frequent EHS incidents. (Keep in mind that I had no idea of what was happening, and it was BEFORE the internet even existed for everyday folks.) I once described it to my doctor, never having heard of it before, only to be laughed at in a most cruel way and essentially accused of making things up! (It would take hours to type out my ridiculous number of bad doctor horror stories. I seem to attract incompetent doctors the same way manure attracts flies!) It is probably unnecessary to say that I never mentioned it to anyone again, assuming everyone would react the same way. The first I heard of EHS was last year in a YouTube video. I actually wept from relief at not being alone!

    In my case, the symptoms are always the same and always occur as I’m just on the verge of reaching deep sleep – never as I’m waking up. It is a startling sound somewhere between a very close gunshot and a small explosion. Eight times out of ten, it feels as if I had been struck on the top center of my head for several moments after I’ve jerked awake. (I have frightened my cat, who sleeps half on my pillow and half on my shoulder and back, nearly to death so often that you’d think he would shun me at bedtime!) More than half the time, I am awakened multiple times before fully going under. If it means anything, upon starting awake, I’m often aware that I was beginning to dream when it happened. (I am a prolific dreamer, rarely going two nights in a row without a dream of some kind.) I feel I should also mention that I have serious bouts of the hypnic jerks mentioned in the article. (My poor pets have suffered there as well, I having kicked more than one clear out of the bed more than once!)

    Even the one medication that helps me sleep has no effect, the EHS and jerks happening anyway. If I am awakened multiple times, it often becomes a lost cause since I stop being sleepy altogether. I’ve gone without a decent night’s sleep for nearly a week because of that! Mental and physical exhaustion will finally end the cycle eventually. I suppose it is time to finally talk to my current doctor as she is worth more than a million times all the quacks I’ve endured combined! Hopefully something I typed here will be of use to someone!

    • I suffer from EHS and my neurologist prescribed Topamax. I took it for many months but all it did was make me dopey (brain fog). I have had as much as 20 episodes a day — yes it happens for me during the day too.

  • I’ve experienced this about 3 times in the last 8 or so months. Its always an air horn like noise, but generally accompanied by a person trying to get my attention in my dream. Its never just out of the blue. I have experienced sleep paralysis as well. My mom has the same issues, but worse than i do.

  • Aye it was wack yo like bruh i heard a gunshot when i wakes up one time like how that happen idk but thanks for this article

  • I experienced EHS for the first time this afternoon while napping. I was lying on my right side sleeping, when something seemed to have detonated in my head or next to my left ear. I opened my eyes immediately, quite disturbed and even frightened. I thought I had experienced a stroke and was afraid to get out of bed. The bang seemed real. Later I began thinking that the blast I heard was a dream. Now six hours later, I am happy that there is no damage to my body, such as the internal parts of the ear. It wasn’t a stroke, as I’m functioning normally. The noise is hard to describe other than that it was alarmingly loud. My wife experienced a similar episode about five years ago.

  • Hi, I regularly suffer from EHS, it started off with a buzzing sound which seemed to go from one ear to the other but across the top of my head, it feels like I have a swarm of bees in my head. I still get that, but also on falling asleep I also get a really loud bang in my head which brings me back fully conscious again. I also get that jumpy feeling where limbs seem to jump. I also suffer with sleep paralyisis which seems to take many forms. One night it can feel like someone is hugging me tightly and I can’t break away from it, other times I can feel like I am fully awake in my bedroom and can see everything from curtains to cats walking around but yet I am paralyed and can’t move. I feel as though my eyes are open and I desperately try to move my arms and legs but they wont move. Because I have suffered from this regularly I am aware enough to control my panic and think to myself its just another sleep paralysis although I still try to fight it and wake up. I never seem to wake up after an episode though and I seem to fall back to proper sleep and then wake up again and feel normal. I have also had sensations where I feel like I am rolling round like a ball from one room to another. During these episodes I can see the light and my surroundings and feel as though I am awake but have no control over my body!!!! OMG!!! How crazy do I sound :) but not just me in my family who have these strange sleeping episodes. My mum. 2 sons, daughter, niece and other family members have also experienced the same sleeping problems.

  • Hi, I just experienced EHS this morning. I was dreaming I was pulling out of the drive way with my family and a gun shot went off with a flash. I believe I was shot (in my dream) but I didn’t wake up right away. But of course I was scared when I did get up because I didn’t understand where my brain would get this loud popping sound

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