Exploding head syndrome is a sleep disorder that causes people to hear loud noises when they transition in or out of deep sleep.
Although hearing loud noises can cause distress, panic, or fear in some people, exploding head syndrome is not a severe or life threatening condition. However, it can interfere with a person’s sleep, which may lead to excessive daytime fatigue.
Keep reading to learn more about the causes, symptoms, and treatments for exploding head syndrome.
Exploding head syndrome is a type of sleep disorder that belongs to a group called parasomnias. These cause unwanted physical, verbal, or behavioral symptoms during sleep transitions.
Other parasomnias include:
- night terrors
- sleep eating
According to the authors of one 2018 review, 4–67% of adults experience parasomnias.
Despite its name, exploding head syndrome is not a dangerous medical condition. This sleep condition does not cause pain or any serious side effects.
The exact cause of exploding head syndrome remains unclear. However, some theories suggest that it could result from minor seizures in the temporal lobe or parts of the middle ear moving during the night. Fear, emotional stress, or anxiety may also contribute to the condition.
Historically, researchers believed that exploding head syndrome mainly affected females over the age of 50. However, in one 2017 study, researchers evaluated 49 college students who reported having symptoms of exploding head syndrome.
People who experience high levels of stress and those who have a history of insomnia may also have a higher risk of experiencing exploding head syndrome.
People who experiencing exploding head syndrome imagine loud noises that sound similar to explosions and crashes as they transition into deep sleep or when they wake up in the middle of the night. Flashes of light and muscle spasms may accompany these noises.
Although these noises are not real, they can cause distress, fear, and anxiety in some people. Noise attacks can happen once or multiple times during the night, but they usually stop when a person is fully awake.
According to the findings of one 2019 study, between 3.89% and 6.54% of people with exploding head syndrome have at least one episode per month.
Some other symptoms of exploding head syndrome include:
- rapid heart rate
- fearfulness, agitation, or anxiety
- difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep
- daytime fatigue
- mild memory impairment
There are no standard treatment guidelines for exploding head syndrome. Doctors may recommend counseling or talk therapy if they think that stress or anxiety could be significant contributing factors.
People who have other sleep disorders, such as sleep apnea, may notice less intense or less frequent noise episodes after a doctor starts treating the underlying sleep condition.
Specific medications may also help treat exploding head syndrome.
In one case study, doctors treated exploding head syndrome in a 39-year-old female. She experienced loud banging and buzzing sounds — as well as involuntary jerking movements in her head, arms, and legs — as she fell asleep. These symptoms occurred on a nightly basis and persisted for 3 years.
Her doctors performed a neurological exam as well as imaging and other laboratory tests. All of her results came back normal, and her doctors found no indications of seizure activity.
They decided to treat her condition with topiramate, a migraine medication. After 2 months of treatment, she reported that the loud banging sounds had lessened to a low buzzing. Although the noises were less disruptive, she continued to experience symptoms on a nightly basis.
Other medications that may help reduce the symptoms of exploding head syndrome include:
- tricyclic antidepressants
- anti-anxiety medications
- calcium blockers
Some people may not require treatment. In one 2013 case study, a 57-year-old male reported four separate episodes over 2 years. He described his symptoms as “explosions in [his] head.” However, he denied feeling any pain or headaches after these episodes.
His doctor did not prescribe treatment, and the male did not report any additional episodes at a follow-up appointment 6 months later.
A person may want to contact a doctor or a sleep specialist if they experience symptoms of exploding head syndrome, especially if these symptoms cause distress or interfere with their quality of sleep.
A doctor may ask questions about the person’s medical history, current emotional state, and sleep habits. If a doctor believes that someone may have a sleep condition, they will likely refer them to a sleep specialist for further consultation, testing, and treatment recommendations.
A sleep specialist may conduct polysomnography, or a sleep study. This measures various bodily functions during sleep, such as a person’s brain waves, muscle activity, heart rate, and eye movements.
Doctors may use other laboratory tests to diagnose underlying medical conditions that may be contributing to exploding head syndrome. These can include MRI imaging, blood tests, or an electroencephalogram.
Exploding head syndrome belongs to a group of sleep disorders called parasomnias.
It causes people to hear loud noises, such as crashing cymbals or thunderclaps, as they transition in or out of deep sleep. Some people also report seeing bright flashes of light at the same time.
Despite its name, this condition does not cause pain. However, some people report exploding head syndrome episodes before the onset of migraine.
Possible causes of exploding head syndrome include other sleep disorders, sleep deprivation, and high levels of stress or anxiety.
A person should speak with a doctor or a sleep specialist if their symptoms significantly affect their quality of sleep or cause emotional distress.
Practicing relaxation techniques and meditation may lower stress and help people fall asleep faster.