Do You Have Exploding Head Syndrome?

Here’s one thing that people who suffer from “Exploding Head” syndrome can be grateful for – their heads don’t actually detonate. The alarming name of the syndrome refers to the sensation that sufferers’ experience, rather than the physical condition of their cranium.

Nearly one-in-five people have had at least one run in with Exploding Head, according to a new study by Washington State University’s Psychology Clinic. Those who do experience the syndrome wake up abruptly from sleep after having “heard” an imagined loud noise – like a gun shot, a door slamming, or the clash of drum cymbals. Some also perceive rapid flashes of light, similar to the static you might see on a TV screen.

Exploding Head isn’t new; it was first documented in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM V, about 130 years ago, when it was described as “sensory discharges.” A decade or so later it was described as “snapping of the brain.” The syndrome got its current colorful name in 1988, from neurologist Dr. J.M.S. Pearce.

Until the new study though, the syndrome was thought to be uncommon and primarily experienced by people who are 50+ years old.  But 18 percent of the 211 undergraduate college students interviewed for the Washington State study said that they had experienced Exploding Head at least once, and some experience it several times a night. Thankfully, those who reported that the syndrome caused serious distress and interfered in their ability to function normally was only 2.8 percent. That said, 2.8 percent is not an insignificant number, when it comes to heads exploding.

The likely causes of the syndrome are extreme stress and/or sleep deprivation. Some medical experts think that it’s caused by a glitch when the brain is shifting to (hypnagogic) or from (hypnogogic) sleep mode. As the brain prepares for sleep, motor, visual and auditory neurons gracefully shut off in stages – and vice-versa before awakening. If auditory neurons all somehow fire simultaneously, it may create a very realistic impression of hearing a very loud sound.

About one-third of those who reported experiencing Exploding Head have also had at least one incidence of sleep paralysis, in which a person wakes up but is unable to move or speak, sometimes for several minutes per incident. During sleep paralysis a person may experience the sorts of odd visions that are frequent in dreams – such as a strong sense that an intruder or imaginary being with bad intentions is in the room with them. The vast majority of those who have experienced sleep paralysis describe the experience of sleep paralysis as utterly terrifying.

All of us are “paralyzed” during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. This is the time when dreaming is vivid and frequent, and our body’s muscles are relaxed – due to the release of two brain chemicals, glycine and GABA – to the point of paralysis. Scientists believe that this muscle paralysis prevents us from physically responding to what we are experiencing in our dreams.

There is no defined treatment for either Exploding Head or sleep paralysis. In general, those who suffer from more frequent bouts of these syndromes may want to have a checkup to rule out medical problems (epilepsy can cause similar physical sensations). Most people find that learning relaxation techniques and trying to ensure that they get sufficient sleep especially during stressful times eliminates their nighttime difficulties.

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