Animated Image of a Person Struggling from Exploding Head Syndrome

What is Exploding Head Syndrome? –
The Symptoms, Causes & Treatment Options

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Exploding Head Syndrome is a condition that is classified as a parasomnia (sleep disorder) in which a person experiences episodes of imagined sounds or sensations. While EHS (as Exploding Head Syndrome is often referred to) is not known to be dangerous, this type of rare parasomnia can create a scary perception of loud, explosive noises. Sleepers can be awoken at once with strong arousal due to the intense nature of these perceived noises.

 

Exploding Head Syndrome is not only associated with sound; episodes can also include flashes of light. These episodes are only momentary, typically lasting less than a second. The cause is not entirely understood— though there are some theories. The condition affects an estimated 10 to 18 percent of the population, so if you're confused about why this is occurring, you're in good company.

Section 1

Do I Have Exploding Head (Brain) Syndrome?

Section 2

What are the Symptoms of Exploding Head (Brain) Syndrome?

Section 3

Possible Causes of Exploding Head Syndrome

Section 4

Risks of Exploding Head Syndrome

Section 5

Diagnosing Exploding Head Syndrome

Section 6

Treatment Options for Exploding Head Syndrome

Section 7

Frequently Asked Questions

Section 1

Do I Have Exploding Head (Brain) Syndrome?

Section 2

What are the Symptoms of Exploding Head (Brain) Syndrome?

Section 3

Possible Causes of Exploding Head Syndrome

Section 4

Risks of Exploding Head Syndrome

Section 5

Diagnosing Exploding Head Syndrome

Section 6

Treatment Options for Exploding Head Syndrome

Section 7

Frequently Asked Questions

Do I Have Exploding Head (Brain) Syndrome?

Illustration of a Woman Having Too Much on Her Mind and Can't Sleep

EHS is an auditory hallucination in which the person who is experiencing the condition will hear a sudden loud noise as they fall asleep or begin to wake up. However, 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. In addition to noise, some patients will report bright flashes of light[1]; so if these sound similar to your experiences, you may be suffering from 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.[2] This condition is classified as a sleep-related disorder, primarily because it's disruptive to the sufferer's sleeping patterns.

Sounds and visuals associated with EHS include:

Besides all that is listed above, incidences may include other loud noises or visuals as well.

What are the Symptoms of Exploding Head (Brain) Syndrome?

Explosion Noise & Auditory Hallucination

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 to awaken.

 

These noises occur free from any sensation or pain and generally pose no danger or risk.

Exploding Mind & Flashes of Brightness

Illustration of a Man Who Suffers from Exploding Head Syndrome

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. While frightening, it's merely a hallucination, and there are no real dangers or pain associated with the condition.

 

While normally painless, some incidents reported have included a sudden stab of pain to the head. Some individuals assume they are having a stroke when this occurs. This assumption could be due to a sudden muscle twitch happening concurrently, which is not unusual.[3]

Electrical Sensation

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.

 

One individual reported, “you can feel the current passing through you”.[4] If this sounds familiar to what you experience, you could be experiencing exploding brain syndrome.

Anxiety & Increased Heart Rate

Illustration of Tom and His Heart Having High Blood Pressure

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, which isn't uncommon to appear alongside anxiety. 

 

You've probably heard the expression, “my heart skipped a beat,” which is what a heart palpitation is, and it's a common after-effect of an EHS episode. Heart palpitations also include brief periods of a pounding or racing heartbeat. An increased heart rate is a natural side effect of a sudden scare. 

 

When experiencing head explosions that are so loud and sudden in nature, it's natural that they'd be followed by an increased heart rate. Individuals often find falling back asleep after the episode to be challenging.

Possible Causes of Exploding Head Syndrome

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 with sleep included.[5]

 

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. However, that's just one theory.

Myoclonic Jerks

Illustration of a Man Experiencing Hypnic Jerking

A myoclonic jerk could be considered similar to a very minor seizure. Myoclonic jerks can occur singularly, in a sequence, or sporadic pattern of movement. Sometimes they occur many times per minute and sometimes just once; they rise from a brief moment of abnormal neural activity in the frontal lobe.[6]

 

These spastic muscle twitches, contractions, or tightenings, are involuntary and cannot be stopped or controlled. However, unless you're experiencing other severe symptoms, they're not usually worrisome.

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. Discerning whether stress or anxiety cause exploding head syndrome versus exploding head syndrome being a precursor to EHS is particularly challenging, as both could be the cause of the other. 

 

Regardless, due to the shocking nature of the condition, it's understandable why those afflicted struggle with anxiety.

Antidepressant Discontinuation Syndrome

Illustration of a Sleeping Pill Addicted Woman

People who cease taking antidepressants are at a higher risk of experiencing EHS and “brain zaps.” 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 known for helping with sleep which could explain the connection.[7]

 

When a person ceases taking antidepressants, serotonin levels may temporarily drop, which could disrupt sleep patterns and cause characteristic 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, so their dysfunction could cause a host of ailments. According to research, medications for calcium channel blocking like flunarizine and nifedipine have shown positive results in effectively reducing the frequency or elimination of EHS.[8]

Risks of Exploding Head Syndrome

Illustration of a Tired Woman Suffering to Fall Asleep

Not long ago, doctors and researchers assumed that EHS was most common in women over 50. While current evidence still suggests that the average age of those managing this condition is in the fifties, it's relatively common in young people, as well.

 

There are no known immediate risks; however, it could lead to poor sleep hygiene and an unhealthy lifestyle. Due to EHS's unusual nature and limited research, treatment suggestions are often theoretical and lack extensive affirmation. However, there are steps you can take which have been shown in many cases to alleviate or treat Exploding Head Syndrome.

Diagnosing Exploding Head Syndrome

There is currently no way to test for EHS exactly. However, there are a few techniques that have been used to help achieve a diagnosis. 

 

Methods include:

 

  • Neurologic Examination
  • Imaging Studies
  • Polysomnogram
  • Personal Patient Accounts

 

Physicians will likely use their discretion to decide if any of these tests are needed for diagnosis; however, they're often not necessary due to the specific nature of EHS incidents.

A Doctor Standing Next to a Woman on an Exam Table Illustration

Treatment Options for Exploding Head Syndrome

Healthy Diet

Maintaining a healthy lifestyle is critical for overall well-being. While we don't want to instruct anybody to abstain from the occasional treat, sticking to a diet that consists of nutrient-rich whole foods are widely considered to foster physical and mental health. Some individuals who struggle with EHS claim that positive changes to their diet have significantly helped or resolved their condition.

 

However, more specifically, avoiding junk foods is wise advice for anything that ails you. Eating foods conducive to sleep is preferred; for example, avoiding spicy or fatty foods right before bed should help. Finally, avoid alcohol and caffeine late at night as they can both disrupt your sleep cycle.

illustration of a chips bag calling a person to eat it

Reduce Stress

Since there's a documented link between EHS and stress, you might find it helpful to do relaxing activities that don't involve screens before bed. Relaxing activities might be a warm bath, yoga, stretching, meditation, or a bedtime ritual like a cup of herbal tea.

 

Further, managing your anxiety could lead to a better life. Stress may not only be beneficial for managing EHS, but it could also have significant ties to your overall health and happiness as well.[9]

Good Sleep Hygiene

Getting a full night of shuteye— at least seven hours— will go a long way in reducing stress and should help you sleep. Try your best to go to bed at the same time each night to keep your circadian rhythm on track. Make an effort to stow all electronic devices with bright screens out of the bedroom as well; your Instagram and emails can wait until tomorrow.

Aniamted Image of a Person with Good vs Bad Sleeping Habits

Antidepressants

Antidepressants have been shown in many cases to help alleviate instances of EHS. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRI) manage pathways in the brain that regulate mood, among other essential functions, and experts believe these medications could help those who struggle with exploding head syndrome.

Calcium Channel Blockers

Few types of disorders have been tied to calcium channel dysfunction. Calcium channels are found inside the brain, and experts believe their dysfunction could be the cause of multiple conditions. Medications like flunarizine and nifedipine, which block calcium channels, have indicated positive results in effectively alleviating EHS.

Talk to Your Doctor

Exploding head syndrome may sound so outrageous that you may fear a doctor will have no experience with the condition. However, a physician is a valuable resource and should be your first point of contact 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 may also recommend that you keep a journal to document your incidents for review.

Recognize that it is a Hallucination

Having a support network of people you trust and can confide in could be key in helping alleviate your episodes. The simple act of a friend or family member affirming your experience could help ease stress and foster understanding. 

 

Further, while scary, try to remind yourself that the sound is not happening outside your brain. 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.

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 mind explosions 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. So, while experts believe it's not likely that a toddler will experience the condition, incidents may merely be underreported.

[1] Brian A. Sharpless, Dan Denis, Rotem Perach, Christopher C. French, Alice M. Gregory, Exploding Head Syndrome: Clinical Features, Theories about Etiology, and Prevention Strategies in a Large International Sample, Sleep Medicine, U.S. National Library of Medicine, 2020.
[2] Francesca Puledda , David Moreno-Ajona, Peter J. Goadsby, Exploding Head Syndrome (A.k.a. Episodic Cranial Sensory Shock) Responds to Single-Pulse Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation, European Journal of Neurology, U.S. National Library of Medicine, February 1, 2015.
[3] Isra Khan, Exploding Head Syndrome, StatPearls [Internet]., U.S. National Library of Medicine, January 6, 2021.
[4] I Have Exploding Head Syndrome, BBC Future
[5] Brian A. Sharpless, Dan Denis, Rotem Perach, Christopher C. French, Alice M. Gregory, “Exploding Head Syndrome: Clinical Features, Theories about Etiology, and Prevention Strategies in a Large International Sample”, Sleep Medicine, U.S. National Library of Medicine, 2020.
[6] Myoclonus Fact Sheet, National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
[7] Gautam Ganguly, et. al., Exploding Head Syndrome: A Case Report, Case Reports in Neurology, S. Karger AG, January 2013
[8] Gautam Ganguly, et. al., “Exploding Head Syndrome: A Case Report”, Case Reports in Neurology, S. Karger AG, January 2013
[9] Happiness & Health, Harvard School of Public Health, February 19, 2014.
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