Well I never thought I’d be writing an article titled, “What is Exploding Head Syndrome?” (or exploding head anything for that matter)
However, my vast research into my own problems with sleep has led me to many weird and wonderful findings, and I guess exploding head syndrome (EHS) is just about at the top of the list when it comes to weird.
So, without further ado, sit back, relax, hold on to your hats (or head in this case) and let’s discover what this mind blowing condition is all about.
What is Exploding Head Syndrome?
Firstly, before we go any further I think it’s important to clarify that exploding head syndrome is nowhere as dangerous as it undoubtedly sounds.
EHS is classified as both a sleep disorder and a headache disorder.
A person who experiences EHS will typically hear extremely loud noises in short, sharp bursts. The noises are said to be reminiscent of a clash of cymbals, an explosion, a gunshot, or a clap of thunder.
This generally occurs just as you are drifting off to sleep or waking up from a deep sleep.
As frightening as this sounds, it isn’t considered a health concern and there is no pain associated with this sensation (this actually makes me question why it is sometimes viewed as a headache disorder, as headaches are typically painful).
Some people have stated that the loud noise is often accompanied by a flash of light.
The sound created by exploding head syndrome will be more than enough to wake any poor soul who experiences it – they generally jump up, possibly frightened, look around, find that nothing is amiss, and all is peaceful and quiet once more.
Nevertheless, I would hazard a guess that any instances of EHS can be distressing and probably quite scary as well.
I have read that EHS is a very rare and little-understood condition. While it is true that there are no real figures into how many people suffer from this sleep disorder, some sources estimate that it may occur in approximately 10% of people. So, not as rare as you may think.
The condition also appears to be more prevalent in women than men and people over the age of 50 (however, the youngest known person to experience exploding head syndrome was just 10 years old).
The first incident of exploding head syndrome was first described by the physician, Silas Weir Mitchell, in 1876. He spoke of 2 men who had suffered “sensory discharges” that woke them from their slumber.
The 2 men themselves described hearing a noise such as “loud bells” or a “gunshot”.
EHS established its current name in 1988.
What Are The Signs & Symptoms of EHS?
Exploding head syndrome is most commonly experienced as you’re drifting off to sleep or just waking up and you’ll hear an extremely loud noise like an explosion.
If you hear the noise just as you’re falling asleep this is referred to as a hypnagogic hallucination, and if you’re waking up it is called a hypnopompic hallucination.
I guess the clue is in the name and these are nothing more than hallucinations.
With that being said, for anyone who has encountered EHS it certainly feels very real at the time.
You may hear a noise once and once only, whereas some people have stated that they hear a noise a number of times during the night. However, one thing is for sure, whenever you hear the noise you will be jolted awake.
I’ve mentioned that there are those who have said that they also saw a flash of light at the same time. Other symptoms you may also experience include, twitching of the muscles, elevated heart rate, and a sense of fear or anxiety.
The noise generated by EHS will generally happen as you pass from one sleep stage to another, although it should go away once you’re awake.
Hold On This Goes Against The Grain
A study into exploding head syndrome was published in March 2015.
It had previously been hypothesized that EHS was prevalent in the over-50s, and especially females.
In order to test this theory 211 undergraduate students were assessed for exploding head syndrome (as well as isolated cases of sleep paralysis – the link will become clear in a moment).
A total of 18%, or 38, of the students said that they had experienced the condition. 35 stated that this was a regular occurrence for them.
It wasn’t found to be more common among females, but of the 38 students who had experienced EHS, 14 of them (over a third) were also diagnosed with isolated incidents of sleep paralysis.
Sleep paralysis is a condition where you are literally “paralyzed” upon awakening and cannot speak or move, and it often feels as though someone is lying on top of you and pinning you down.
I would say coupled with a loud, unexplained explosion this would be absolutely terrifying.
The study was led by the assistant professor of psychology at Washington State University, Brian Sharpless.
Sharpless explained that if you suffer with any type of sleep disruption, such as insomnia, then you were more likely to experience the condition.
I think this goes a long way to explain why the figures from this study were above the estimated “average” of 10% of the population suffering from EHS – if there’s one thing that students are well-known for, it’s having disrupted sleep.
Sharpless also stated that stress and emotional tension are likely to be reasons for EHS occurring on a regular basis.
That Explains a Lot
So, when looking at the causes of exploding head syndrome we have the above explanation that disruption to sleep, stress and tension are potentially the leading causes.
However, in truth, the actual sources of this condition aren’t fully understood.
During my research I have also seen the following causes listed:
- Components of the middle ear moving during the night
- Another sleep disorder (insomnia, sleep paralysis, etc.)
- A medical condition
- A side effect of using certain medications
- Broken sleep due to a decline in delta sleep (not getting enough deep sleep and REM sleep)
- A temporary dysfunction of the calcium channel
- Substance abuse
- Post traumatic stress disorder (or another type of mental health disorder)
- Minor seizures which affect the temporal lobe
So, as you can see, it is a little confusing as to what exactly causes exploding head syndrome, but I personally draw the conclusion that it has a lot to do with a lack of sleep (all of the factors on the above list can lead to a poor quality of sleep).
The Scientific Explanation For EHS
There is another theory on the causes of EHS and I find this extremely interesting and it does actually make a lot of sense.
Admittedly, I do sometimes get a little confused with scientific explanations, but I guess my research into sleep disorders has helped to shed some light on these matters and understand them a little better.
So, if you’re anything like me, I hope the following doesn’t create too much confusion.
Now I know that the activity of brain waves plays a huge role in the different stages of sleep.
Our brain waves will typically slow down as we become more relaxed until we eventually hit deep sleep and REM sleep.
However, during the first two stages of sleep (very light sleep and light sleep) a few things happen to both the body and the brain.
During very light sleep the muscles will often contract suddenly, which is when you may experience the very common sleep sensation of falling. As we move through to the next stage, light sleep, it’s the brain’s turn to have sudden contractions (or surges to be exact).
The sudden surges in neural activity during light sleep are connected to sensory processing and consolidating memories.
However, there have been several studies which suggest that these sudden bursts of energy levels in the brain tend to coincide with the reported explosions of EHS.
You see, as we fall asleep our body tends to shut down, so we are unable to act out our dreams (can you imagine the havoc you could cause if you were constantly acting out your dreams?) So, in effect, there is a transitional phase between being awake and falling asleep and the brain typically turns off at this point.
Nevertheless, in cases of EHS there seems to be a slight “delay” in this shut down process and the sudden burst of brain waves are typically in the part of the brain which is responsible for processing sound.
Therefore, this surge of neurons in the brain may in fact be responsible for the sensation of hearing an explosion in your head. Almost like the buzzing of an electrical circuit due to all the neural activity going on in the brain.
This theory may actually make a lot of sense to those who suffer with exploding head syndrome, as I have also often heard people refer to the noise as being electrical in nature, like being zapped. An electric shock if you will, whereby current passes through you.
Are There Any Treatments For EHS?
Exploding head syndrome is classified as a parasomnia (a sleep disorder that involves abnormal behaviors or movements, emotions, perceptions or dreams).
If you believe you are suffering from symptoms of EHS then your first port of call is to speak to your Doctor.
You will then typically be referred to a sleep specialist who will initially ask you to keep a sleep diary, as well as keeping track of your emotions and dietary habits over a period of a few weeks.
If EHS is a particularly common occurrence you may even be required to have an overnight stay at a sleep clinic and have a polysomnographic test conducted. This will help to evaluate both your body and brain’s activities while you sleep.
Unfortunately, due to the fact that the condition isn’t understood very well, there is no standard treatment for EHS.
Therefore, the treatment you receive will very much depend on other factors, such as your age, other symptoms, and how these symptoms are impacting on your everyday life.
The basic forms of treatment will include trying relaxation and meditation techniques, aiming to reduce your stress levels, changes to your sleep routine, and possibly even counseling and psychotherapy.
For some people the use of certain medications that influence neural activity may be the answer including, tricyclic antidepressants, anticonvulsants, or calcium channel blockers.
To be completely honest, just finding out that EHS isn’t harmful in any way is sometimes the only reassurance someone may need to see the symptoms improve over a period of time.
So, it appears that exploding head syndrome is a very real condition for possibly up to 10% of the population.
However, you can rest safe in the knowledge that it doesn’t actually cause any harm.
There are various theories as to the causes of EHS, but as so little is really known about the condition, it is very hard to pinpoint the exact reasons why someone may suffer from it.
It is obviously a condition that is related to sleep, so my suggestion would be to initially look into ways to improve the overall quality of your sleep.
If you find that EHS is starting to have an adverse impact on your life then you should seek help from a medical professional.
With that being said, you should keep in mind that there is no real harm being done by EHS.
Have you or someone you know been affected by exploding head syndrome?
I’d love to hear your thoughts and insights into this little-known sleep disorder.
So, please have your say in the comments section below and I look forward to discussing this with you in further detail.