Mysterious Exploding Head Syndrome Makes People Feel Their Head Will Pop as They Sleep

Some people suffer from a sleep problem known as exploding head syndrome (EHS) several times a week, a study has revealed.

EHS sufferers can hear loud noises that aren't there, or feel as though there is an explosion happening in their head when they are about fall asleep. Episodes are characterized by the person waking up abruptly but no significant pain, according to the authors of the paper published in the journal Sleep Medicine.

The little-understood phenomenon was first documented in the 1880s, but received scant attention until 1980 despite being relatively common and important, the authors said. Basic questions remain unanswered, for example who is most at risk, as well as the cause.

Their study, the largest conducted on the condition, involved 3,286 people with EHS and 2,954 without, who carried out sleep questionnaires online. Most participants were white (92 percent), female (66 percent), and aged 47 years old on average.

The survey revealed that 5 percent had EHS attacks several times a week, 35 percent had it a few times a year, and 40 percent several times in their lives.

Of those who had EHS, 44 percent said it caused them significant fear, and a quarter significant distress.

Asked to consider the cause, most said it could be a problem with the brain, 35 percent put it down to stress, and 7 percent a side effect of medication. A further 3 percent said it could be supernatural, and 2 percent said it may be caused by electronic equipment.

Study co-author Brian A. Sharpless, visiting associate professor of psychology at St. Mary's College of Maryland, told Newsweek he was surprised the latter two explanations were so relatively common.

There is currently no treatment for the syndrome. Sufferers were asked to share and rate their methods for preventing EHS, with drinking more alcohol and sleeping on one's back both said to be around 80 percent effective. Going to bed earlier and getting more sleep were both around 50 percent effective.

People with exploding head syndrome slept less than those without, and took longer to fall asleep. Their quality of sleep was poorer and they spent less of their time in bed asleep. But the team said the differences between the two groups were relatively small.

The study was limited because the researchers didn't assess the patients in person, but online, and the way the survey was advertised may have led to sleep disturbances being overrepresented, they said.
Co-author Alice Gregory, professor of psychology at Goldsmiths, University of London, U.K., told BBC Science Focus: "Exploding Head Syndrome (EHS) is not discussed very much in the media or elsewhere. Consequently, people having this experience may have very little information about what is going on."

Gregory said the team would like to better understand the link between EHS and poor sleep quality and less sleep.

"For example, could disturbed sleep trigger this experience, or is it that someone who has experienced EHS finds it more difficult to fall asleep at night?"

Asked what readers should take from the study, Sharpless, the author of Unusual and Rare Psychological Disorders, said: "If it's a rare occurrence in your life and you are not bothered by it, it's probably nothing to worry about. If episodes are accompanied by significant levels of pain, you should definitely get checked out by a good provider.

"EHS is scary and shocking, but not painful, so pain could mean that something more serious is going on like a subarachnoid hemorrhage [a type of stroke]. If you are having it to the point that it is affecting your life, you might want to consult with a doctor who specializes in the treatment of parasomnias [disruptive sleep disorders]."

This article has been updated with comment from Brian A. Sharpless and to clarify the limitations.

noise, head, stock, getty
A stock image shows a man putting his fingers in his ears. Hearing loud noises that aren't there is among the symptoms of Exploding Head Syndrome. Getty