How Can You Develop Exploding Head Syndrome?

When one hears exploding head syndrome, one immediately thinks, “Wow, that sounds painful…” In reality, exploding head syndrome, or EHS, is completely painless, although it can be quite bothersome.

EHS is a sleep disorder that makes someone hear explosions, gunshots, and other loud noises. No one else can hear these startling sounds, and they only appear as one tries to fall asleep or when they wake up.

Exploding head syndrome is categorized as a parasomnia, which is a medical term for abnormal behavior during sleep. More familiar conditions, such as talking in your sleep and sleepwalking are two other examples of parasomnia. Even though EHS is usually painless and doesn’t have complications, it can mess with one’s sleep and cause or worsen one’s anxiety.

What causes exploding head syndrome?

Exploding Head Syndrome man trying to sleep in noisy room

In the case of many parasomnias, the cause is pretty murky and difficult to pinpoint. EHS is no different, and medical research doesn’t have a clear-cut answer as to what causes exploding head syndrome. 

That being said, any of the following things are known to contribute to EHS:

  • Stress and anxiety - researchers observed that people are more likely to experience EHS when they’re very tired or stressed
  • A calcium imbalance can make nerve cells become overly active.
  • An aura before a migraine.
  • Damage or other problems with the inner ear.
  • A processing glitch in the brain during the sleep-wake transition.
  • Micro-seizures in the brain’s sensory neurons in the temporal lobe.

EHS can also be a side effect of SSRI antidepressants or benzodiazepines (used to treat anxiety).

Who is more likely to suffer from exploding head syndrome?

Exploding Head Syndrome woman struggling to fall asleep

For a long time, researchers believed the exploding head syndrome affects primarily older people, especially women over the age of 50. But more recent research suggests that the condition is quite common among college students as well. Moreover, a different study notes that people who suffer from EHS often notice symptoms in early childhood. All of this suggests that EHS is likely a lot more common than previously believed.

How does an EHS episode feel? What are the symptoms of the condition?

People who experience this condition say that it feels like “an explosion in the head.” They report hearing thunder, gunshots, crashes, or other very loud and bothersome noises. Some individuals see flashing lights or feel muscle spasms. These episodes are usually very brief, and they can happen several times a night or once a month - there’s no set pattern.

Symptoms of EHS include:

  • A loud sudden sound as you’re trying to fall asleep or right before you awaken
  • Noises that no one else hears
  • Frightening or startling noises in your head that wake you at night
  • Feeling anxious after the episode - night sweats, a rapid heartbeat, and trouble breathing immediately after you wake up
  • Sudden muscle spasms or light flashes
  • An absence of physical pain during an EHS episode.

Diagnosing exploding head syndrome

Exploding Head Syndrome men with insomnia lying in bed

Only a doctor or a sleep specialist can diagnose EHS and direct you toward the best treatment. If EHS prevents you from getting enough sleep or triggers anxiety attacks, contact your healthcare provider. During the examination, the clinician may inquire about your medical history, the medications and supplements you’re taking, and whether or not anyone else in your family has a sleep disorder. They will also ask you to describe your episodes in detail.

A sleep specialist may also conduct any of the following tests to rule out other conditions: 

  • Polysomnogram - a test that measures your heart rate, brain wave, eye movements, and breathing during sleep
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) - a magnetic brain scan
  • Electroencephalogram (EEG) - a test that measures electrical brain activity.

A sleep specialist may also advise starting a sleep diary to better track how often you experience episodes of EHS and what could be triggering them.

What treatments are available for EHS?

Exploding Head Syndrome therapy session

Those who receive a diagnosis of EHS will be directed to a psychologist or psychiatrist who specializes in sleep disorders. These trained professionals will be able to treat the sleep issue through therapy and medications.

If your doctor will be able to pinpoint what causes your episodes, you can work to prevent those triggers by modifying your habits, namely:

  • Make sure to get 7-9 hours of sleep if you tend to get more symptoms when you’re tired.
  • Meditate, do yoga, practice deep breathing, or take a relaxing bath before sleep if stress triggers EHS for you.

All in all, exploding head syndrome is a bothersome but relatively harmless condition. With proper treatment and self-investigation, you’ll be able to control your triggers, and in many cases, the episodes could completely vanish over time.

H/T: Healthline, Cleveland Clinic, Medical News Today

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