Exploding Head Syndrome is a Real Sleep Disorder

Posted on May 6, 2014

Exploding head syndrome (EHS) is a real sleep disorder says Washington State University researcher Brain Sharpless. The syndrome is recognized in the International Classification of Sleep Disorders, but it is largely mysterious. The term was first used in a Lancet article in 1988. It is more common in women than men. Sharpless, a WSU assistant professor and director of the university psychology clinic, says people with the syndrome perceive abrupt, loud noises as they are going to sleep or waking up. These noises may sound like door slams, fireworks or even gunshots.

Sharpless says, "It's a provocative and understudied phenomenon. I've worked with some individuals who have it seven times a night, so it can lead to bad clinical consequences as well. Some people start to become anxious when they go into their bedroom or when they try to go to sleep. Daytime sleepiness can be another problem."

Sharpless says some patient experience mild pain. Some hear explosions in one or both years. Others feel like the explosions are within their heads. Some patients also see lightning or bright flashes.

Sharpless also says, "In layman's terms, our best guess is that it occurs when the body doesn't shut down for sleep in the correct sequence. Instead of shutting down, certain groups of neurons actually get activated and have us perceive the bursts of noise. Behavioral and psychological factors come into play as well, and if you have normally disrupted sleep, the episodes will be more likely to occur."

Sharpless believes the syndrome is more widespread than presumed. He has been contacted by several people with the syndrome following a recent story on EHS in the Daily Mail.