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Contrary to what the name sounds like, Exploding Head Syndrome does not mean that your head will literally explode.
The name is not the only mysterious thing about Exploding Head Syndrome or EHS for short. The cause is not entirely known (though there are some theories we’ll discuss), and it affects an estimated 10 to 18 percent of the population.
The first medical diagnosis was published in 1876, though there are written records of EHS going back as far as 1619, when French philosopher, Rene Descartes, reported being awakened by a loud noise and flash of light during his infamous “Night of Dreams.”
On a single night, he documented three powerful dreams he experienced that set him on the path of becoming the “father of modern philosophy.” Little did he know that he may have been merely suffering from a sleep disorder!
What is Exploding Head Syndrome?
This condition is also referred to as “episodic cranial sensory shock,” which in layman’s terms, means an occasional shock in the head or skull involving one of the senses. It’s classified as a sleep-related disorder, mostly due to the fact that it’s disruptive of the sufferer’s sleeping patterns.
EHS is an auditory hallucination in which the person who is experiencing it will hear a sudden loud noise as they fall asleep or begin to wake up. The noise is not real, no one else can perceive it, and patients often report that it sounds like it’s coming from inside their head.
Some of the sounds associated with EHS include:
- Explosions or bombs
- Gunshots firing
- Clashing cymbals
- Loud conversations
There are other symptoms patients experience, which we’ll get to in a moment.
Symptoms of Exploding Head Syndrome
The most commonly reported symptom of EHS is an auditory hallucination, which is a noise that isn’t real. The person with EHS hears these explosive noises, and they are loud and sudden enough to wake them from a light sleep as they’re beginning to drift off. The sound can also occur as the patient is starting the process of waking up.
See Flashes of Bright
In addition to the loud noises, EHS sufferers may also see flashes of bright light. It’s similar to the pairing of thunder and lightning, although, again, it’s merely a hallucination.
Right before the explosive noise, patients sometimes report that they feel an electrical sensation that begins in their torso or chest and travels up to their head. The shock sensation is then immediately followed by the loud noise.
As you can imagine, a sudden, jarring noise that suddenly wakes you from sleep is bound to be accompanied by anxiety. In addition to heavier breathing and an increased heart rate, EHS sufferers also report heart palpitations and sweating. They also often have a tougher time falling back asleep after the episode.
Increased Heart Rate
An increased heart rate is a natural side effect of a sudden scare. Because the head explosions are so loud and sudden in nature, it’s logical that they’d be followed by an increased heart rate.
You’ve heard the expression, “my heart skipped a beat.” Well, that’s what a heart palpitation is, and it’s also a common after-effect of an EHS episode. Heart palpitations also include brief periods of a pounding or racing heartbeat.
There’s no clear answer about what causes this condition, but there are plenty of theories. One of the most logical explanations is that it’s due to a malfunction in the reticular formation in the brainstem. The brainstem has an advanced network of neurons that control almost all of our bodily functions, sleep included.
When we fall asleep, our brain performs a shutdown sequence that signals parts of our body to stop functioning fully. When the communication wires get crossed, it can result in a misfire that could cause the cacophonic (but imagined) sound of a head explosion. That’s just one theory, though. There are plenty of others, too, including:
We’re not talking about the severe, life-threatening seizures that result in hospitalization, loss of speech and function, and extensive therapy. A minor seizure can be as innocuous as a small jerk that comes from a brief moment of abnormal neural activity in the frontal lobe. Unless you’re experiencing other symptoms, it’s probably not something to worry about.
The inner workings of our ear contain all sorts tubes and labyrinths that control and transport sound. If there’s something amiss in the communication between the brain and the ear canal, it could cause an auditory hallucination.
Stress and Anxiety
While there’s not a direct cause and effect relationship, patients who experience EHS also report feeling more stress and anxiety in general.
A Decline in Delta Sleep
Delta sleep, also known as Slow-Wave Sleep is the deep stage where healing and restoration take place. Patients who report incidences of EHS also tend to spend less time in this phase of the cycle.
Antidepressant Discontinuation Syndrome
People who cease taking antidepressants are at a higher risk of experiencing EHS. This is because antidepressants are known as serotonin reuptake inhibitors, meaning that they make more serotonin available to your brain. This chemical is primarily responsible for happiness, but it’s also a sleep regulator.
When a person ceases taking antidepressants, serotonin levels may temporarily drop, which could disrupt sleep patterns and cause symptoms to appear.
Temporary Calcium Channel Dysfunction
Calcium channel dysfunction has been linked to a variety of disorders, including everything from autism to arrhythmia. Some calcium channels are found in the brain, which makes it likely that their dysfunction could cause a host of disorders.
Exploding Head Syndrome Risk Factors
Not long ago, doctors and researchers assumed that EHS was most common in women over 50. However, new evidence suggests that even though the average age of the person who suffers from this condition is in their fifties, it’s relatively common in young people as well.
So, while there are no known risk factors, other than poor sleep hygiene and an unhealthy lifestyle, there are steps you can take to treat and prevent EHS.
Talk to Your Doctor
Your doctor is a valuable resource in helping you get to the bottom of your head explosion episodes. While medication is a viable option to reduce the frequency and severity of the events, your doctor is most likely to recommend that you keep a journal that documents both your waking and sleeping hours.
That way, you and doctor can look at what’s been documented in your journal to see if there’s an underlying pattern that’s causing EHS.
Recognize that it is a Hallucination
Even though it’s scary, if you remind yourself that the sound is not real, it can go a long way in easing your mind. In fact, it’s not uncommon for this condition to go away on its own with a simple reassurance from your doctor that the condition is harmless.
Good Sleep Hygiene
Again, getting a full night of shuteye (at least seven hours) will go a long way in reducing stress to help you sleep. Try going to bed at the same time each night to keep your circadian rhythm on track and keep all electronic devices with bright screens out of the bedroom. Your Instagram feed and emails can wait until tomorrow.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is parasomnia?
This term refers to any type of sleeping disorder, except for sleep apnea. Parasomnia is often associated with disruptive sleep patterns as the body shifts from waking to sleeping or vice versa.
These patterns include sleepwalking, night terrors, disorientation, sleep eating, sleep sex, teeth grinding, talking while asleep, and restless legs syndrome. EHS is also on the list of parasomnia sleep disorders.
Can exploding head syndrome be a sign of schizophrenia?
While people with schizophrenia may also experience this condition due to their tendency to experience hallucinations, EHS by itself is not a sign of schizophrenia.
Can they happen (are they common) in toddlers?
So far, the earliest reported case of head explosions has been reported in a child who was ten years old. Therefore, it’s not likely that a toddler will experience it.
It seems like doctors always come up with scary-sounding names to make us afraid of our own shadows. Fortunately, Exploding Head Syndrome is nothing to be scared of, despite the name. Many patients report that episodes are infrequent and trail off over time. However, for the minority of people who experience this phenomenon a regular basis, treatment (natural or otherwise) may be the best course of action.