This is a phenomenon called “exploding head syndrome,” and according to a new study released by researchers at Washington State University, it’s more common than physicians had previously thought. The researchers recently published the findings in the Journal of Sleep Research.
“Most people have experienced some form of ‘sleep start’ — when you’re falling asleep and then suddenly jerk awake,” explained Kevin Walker, MD, a sleep specialist with Intermountain Healthcare’s Sleep Disorder Center. “As we’re drifting off to sleep and things are shutting down, our neurons can sometimes misfire.”
Exploding head syndrome is one form of that misfiring of the brain. The auditory neurons tell the person there was a loud sound, but it wasn’t really there. A small number of people have also reported seeing lightning or flashes of light.
The syndrome’s commonly accepted name is descriptive, but probably over-dramatic. There’s no pain and no physical symptoms — yet the condition is very real.
Some people with exploding head syndrome may think they’re experiencing an aneurism, seizure or other form of serious neurological problem, but actually the phenomenon itself is harmless. However, it can be very frightening and disrupt sleep patterns.
In the Washington State University study, researchers assessed 211 undergraduate students and found about 18 percent of those studied had experienced the syndrome at least once, and more than 16 percent had recurring cases. Less than 3 percent of those who had experienced it had it to an extent that it interfered with their lives, according to the research.
“Usually this ‘exploding head’ happens infrequently and isn’t a big concern, but if it’s occurring often and if it’s distressing, it can become a real problem,” said Dr. Walker.
What causes exploding head syndrome and how do you treat it?“The most common triggers for exploding head syndrome appear to be stress and significant fatigue,” Dr. Walker said. “Addressing the sleep deprivation, improving sleep habits, and reducing stress should help resolve the symptoms.”
Dr. Walker adds that exploding head syndrome could be a sign of other underlying sleep disorders. “If it’s bad enough that it’s regularly disrupting your sleep, you should talk to a doctor.”