Field of Science

Exploding Head Syndrome - No pun required
This is an old post from my previous blog. Recently it has been seeing a lot of activity so I thought I'd play around with it a bit and re-post it here. Enjoy :)

Sometimes when searching for disease to write about a wonderful thing happens. The clouds part, cherubs descend, angels play intricate harp-based musical compositions, and a beam of light illuminates the link to a wonderful disease. This happened to me the other day, and now, without further ado, let me introduce you to Exploding Head Syndrome. Best. Disease. Name. Ever.

Acute Exploding Head Syndrome sufferer (screenshot from the 1981 movie Scanners)
Okay so heads don’t actually explode but sufferers seem to experience a simulated explosion in the form of an incredibly loud noise coming from inside their own head. This sound can take many forms from ringing and screaming to, of course, explosions. One patient even described the preceding whistle of dropping bombs, the explosion of shells, and then complete silence, similar to an experience she endured as a child during the Blitz in London.

Exploding Head Syndrome is related to equally terrifying syndromes called ‘ice-pick headache’ and ‘needle in the eye syndrome’ but each of those have a pain component where Exploding Head Syndrome doesn’t (I can’t help capitalising Exploding Head Syndrome, it just feels like it should carry capitals).

The syndrome itself is described as “harmless but frightening” for sufferers. I guess the sensation that your head is about to explode isn’t pleasant but frightening doesn’t seem to be enough of a word to describe the torment.

Just to up the scare factor of this syndrome it seems to be associated with sleep. In a case study published in the British Medical Journal a woman described her attacks as…:
“Being wakened by a sudden bang in the head, as if my head was bursting with a flash of light over both fields of vision, after which I would be dazed for a split second" [and then would] "Come round, terrified, my heart thumping. There was no pain, just a frightening sense of explosion.”

So what’s happening? Nobody has any idea. It isn’t auditory because deaf sufferers have been reported. It’s not linked to random nerve firing (often reflected in a condition called myoclonic jerks). It’s not linked to epilepsy. It’s not linked to migraines.

So we can’t understand what causes it, we have no idea what’s happening, we can’t say what might trigger it, it doesn’t seem to correlate with any associated conditions, apart from sleep – there’s only one thing missing here. Can we cure it? Of course not, what are you, stoopid?

There have been some reports that sedatives help but also, confusingly, apparently so do stimulants. Anti-depressants apparently help but not in all cases. The best bet for treatment seems to be to let it go away on its own. Many recorded cases had an acute onset where every night’s sleep was disrupted at least once and over a month to years the attacks became less frequent until they appeared to stop altogether.

I guess sufferers can take heart that if nothing else, being diagnosed with an Exploding Head makes for pretty interesting dinner party conversation!

Listerine - Insensitive to Exploding Head Syndrome sufferers since 1914
Chakravarty, A. (2008). Exploding head syndrome: report of two new cases Cephalalgia, 28 (4), 399-400 DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-2982.2007.01522.x
Evans RW, & Pearce JM (2001). Exploding head syndrome. Headache, 41 (6), 602-3 PMID: 11437900
Kallweit U, Khatami R, & Bassetti CL (2008). Exploding head syndrome--more than "snapping of the brain"? Sleep medicine, 9 (5) PMID: 17709298
Pearce JM (1989). Clinical features of the exploding head syndrome. Journal of neurology, neurosurgery, and psychiatry, 52 (7), 907-10 PMID: 2769286


  1. I have had this for 3 years, it started about 6 weeks after i suffered a brain injury. It happened every night when i laid down at night. It lasts about 1 second and sounds like a loud varoom in my head. It is getting better but still happens about every secind night. Still kinda scares me but i know nothing else is going to happen.

  2. Thanks for posting this. It gives me comfort to know I'm not crazy. I hope you don't mind me quoting you in my blog.


  3. @Marcie
    No problem, I'm glad you liked it :)

  4. I have this syndrome and was so excited today to read a medical book which described and named it, I find it really funny. It happens right at the border between being awake and falling into sleep, and I think could be an attempt by the sub concious to keep me from falling asleep, but I soon do fall asleep and it does not happen twice in one night. It happened quite regularly for some years, but not so often now, I'm a senior person and also have had tinnitus in both ears for about 30 years, and slight asthma causing generally blocked nose and head.My sound is just like an explosion or a mighty crash inside my head.

  5. Does anybody experience this during the day? I was just watching tv and experienced a noise in my head, like someone banging on a door. This was followed by a powerful adrenaline rush, and a strong sense of fear. I had to jump of the couch and walk around the room for a while to calm myself down. Could this be something different, something serious?

  6. As far as I found it can happen at any time bout most report the onset at the border between waking and sleeping. Generally this doesn't occur as a once off either and peoples attacks last for days to weeks. If you're concerned though you should see a doctor and try get a referral to a sleep specialist if you think you need it.

  7. To Anonymous - I've had this since I was a child, and still suffer from it quite frequently. I would say that it occurs most often when I attempt to take naps. In fact it can be quite severe at this time occurring multiple times in rapid succession. It is quite terrifying. It feels like a circular saw going through my brain, and sound a bit like it too. My heart races, at times I give up, and other times I simply double down and try even harder to fall asleep.


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