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There’s a Condition Known as ‘Exploding Head Syndrome’ and Apparently More People Have It Than Previously Thought


"Similar to a bomb exploding"

Photo credit: Shutterstock

Have you heard of "exploding head syndrome?" Contrary to how it might sound, those suffering from the condition don't actually have exploding heads, but experience frighteningly loud noises.

Photo credit: Shutterstock

It's a rare phenomenon where a person is awoken by a loud noise that didn't actually happen in reality — it's all in their mind. Scientists at Washington State University recently conducted a study that found that a significant number young people reported having such experiences, while previous studies suggested it happened most often in older adults.

According to a news release from the university, the cause of the phenomenon is not officially known, but researchers believe it happens when the brain is shutting down for sleep. Here's how the American Sleep Association describes it (emphasis added):

Exploding head syndrome is a rare and relatively undocumented parasomnia event in which the subject experiences a loud bang in their head similar to a bomb exploding, a gun going off, a clash of cymbals or any other form of loud, indecipherable noise that seems to originate from inside the head. Contrary to the name, exploding head syndrome has no elements of pain, swelling or any other physical trait associated with it. They may be perceived as having bright flashes of light accompanying them, or result in shortness of breath, though this is likely caused by the increased heart rate of the subject after experiencing it. It most often occurs just before deep sleep, and sometimes upon coming out of deep sleep.

The ASA's website added that it is associated with "stress and extreme fatigue."

Brian Sharpless, director of the university's psychology department, interviewed more than 200 college students and found that nearly one in five said they experienced exploding head syndrome. An episode is so intense, Sharless said, that some people might think they're having a seizure or worse.

"Some people have worked these scary experiences into conspiracy theories and mistakenly believe the episodes are caused by some sort of directed-energy weapon," he added.

In many instances, an episode was also associated with sleep paralysis, the phenomenon where a person wakes up in the middle of sleep and cannot move their body.

Sharpless began this study, the largest of its kind, because he "didn't believe the clinical lore that it would only occur in people in their 50s," Sharpless said in a statement. "That didn't make a lot of biological sense to me."

As of right now, there is no treatment to eliminate episodes of exploding head syndrome, but Sharpless said one drug can at least "turn the volume down." He said that teaching people who suffer from the condition to "recognize it and not be afraid of it can make it better." Reducing one's stress could reduce episodes as well, according to the ASA.

The study was published in the Journal of Sleep Research.

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