Exploding head syndrome

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Exploding head syndrome
Other names: Episodic cranial sensory shock,[1] snapping of the brain,[2] auditory sleep start[3]
Artistic depiction of flash seen from exploding head syndrome
SpecialtySleep medicine
SymptomsHearing loud noises when falling asleep or waking up[2]
Differential diagnosisNocturnal epilepsy, hypnic headaches, nightmare disorder, PTSD[2]
TreatmentReassurance, clomipramine, calcium channel blockers[2]
Frequency~10% of people[2]

Exploding head syndrome (EHS) is a condition in which a person experiences unreal noises that are loud and of short duration when falling asleep or waking up.[2][4] The noise may be frightening, typically occurs only occasionally, and is not a serious health concern.[2] People may also experience a flash of light.[5] Pain is typically absent.[2]

The cause is unknown.[3] Potential explanations include ear problems, temporal lobe seizure, nerve dysfunction, or specific genetic changes.[2] Potential risk factors include psychological stress.[2] It is classified as a sleep disorder or headache disorder.[2][5] People often go undiagnosed.[5]

There is no high quality evidence to support treatment.[2] Reassurance may be sufficient.[2] Clomipramine and calcium channel blockers have been tried.[2] While the frequency of the condition is not well studied, some have estimated that it occurs in about 10% of people.[2] Females are reportedly more commonly affected.[5] The condition was initially described at least as early as 1876.[2] The current name came into use in 1988.[5]

Signs and symptoms

Individuals with exploding head syndrome hear or experience loud imagined noises as they are falling asleep or waking up, have a strong, often frightened emotional reaction to the sound, and do not report significant pain; around 10% of people also experience visual disturbances like perceiving visual static, lightning, or flashes of light. Some people may also experience heat, strange feelings in their torso, or a feeling of electrical tinglings that ascends to the head before the auditory hallucinations occur.[2] With the heightened arousal, people experience distress, confusion, myoclonic jerks, tachycardia, sweating, and the sensation that feels as if they have stopped breathing and have to make a deliberate effort to breathe again.[4][6][7][8]

The pattern of the auditory hallucinations is variable. Some people report having a total of two or four attacks followed by a prolonged or total remission, having attacks over the course of a few weeks or months before the attacks spontaneously disappear, or the attacks may even recur irregularly every few days, weeks, or months for much of a lifetime.[2]

Some individuals hold the belief that EHS episodes are not natural events, but are the effects of directed energy weapons which create an auditory effect.[9] Thus, EHS has been worked into conspiracy theories, but there is no scientific evidence that EHS has non-natural origins.


The cause of EHS is unknown.[3] A number of hypotheses have been put forth with the most common being dysfunction of the reticular formation in the brainstem responsible for transition between waking and sleeping.[2]

Other theories into causes of EHS include:



Exploding head syndrome is classified under other parasomnias by the 2014 International Classification of Sleep Disorders (ICSD, 3rd.Ed.) and is an unusual type of auditory hallucination in that it occurs in people who are not fully awake.[10][11]

According to ICD-10 and DSM-5 EHS is classified as either another specified sleep-wake disorder (codes:780.59 or G47.8) or unspecified sleep-wake disorder (codes: 780.59 or G47.9).[12][13]


As of 2018, no clinical trials had been conducted to determine what treatments are safe and effective; a few case reports had been published describing treatment of small numbers of people (two to twelve per report) with clomipramine, flunarizine, nifedipine, topiramate, carbamazepine.[2] Studies suggest that education and reassurance can reduce the frequency of EHS episodes.[4] There is some evidence that individuals with EHS rarely report episodes to medical professionals.[8]


There have not been sufficient studies to make conclusive statements about how common or who is most often affected.[2] One study found that 14% of a sample of undergrads reported at least one episode over the course of their lives, with higher rates in those who also have sleep paralysis.[14]


Case reports of EHS have been published since at least 1876, which Silas Weir Mitchell described as "sensory discharges" in a patient.[14] However, it has been suggested that the earliest written account of EHS was described in the biography of the French philosopher René Descartes in 1691.[15] The phrase "snapping of the brain" was coined in 1920 by the British physician and psychiatrist Robert Armstrong-Jones.[14] A detailed description of the syndrome and the name "exploding head syndrome" was given by British neurologist John M. S. Pearce in 1989.[16] More recently, Peter Goadsby and Brian Sharpless have proposed renaming EHS "episodic cranial sensory shock"[1] as it describes the symptoms more accurately (including the non-auditory elements) and better attributes to Mitchell.


  1. 1.0 1.1 Goadsby, Peter J.; Sharpless, Brian A. (2016-11-01). "Exploding head syndrome, snapping of the brain or episodic cranial sensory shock?". J Neurol Neurosurg Psychiatry. 87 (11): 1259–1260. doi:10.1136/jnnp-2015-312617. ISSN 0022-3050. PMID 26833175. Archived from the original on 2017-09-02. Retrieved 2017-05-23.
  2. 2.00 2.01 2.02 2.03 2.04 2.05 2.06 2.07 2.08 2.09 2.10 2.11 2.12 2.13 2.14 2.15 2.16 2.17 2.18 2.19 2.20 2.21 2.22 2.23 2.24 2.25 2.26 Sharpless, Brian A. (December 2014). "Exploding head syndrome". Sleep Medicine Reviews. 18 (6): 489–493. doi:10.1016/j.smrv.2014.03.001. PMID 24703829.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 Blom JD (2015). Auditory hallucinations. Handb Clin Neurol. Handbook of Clinical Neurology. Vol. 129. pp. 433–55. doi:10.1016/B978-0-444-62630-1.00024-X. ISBN 9780444626301. PMID 25726283.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 Frese, A.; Summ, O.; Evers, S. (6 June 2014). "Exploding head syndrome: Six new cases and review of the literature". Cephalalgia. 34 (10): 823–827. doi:10.1177/0333102414536059. PMID 24907167.
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 5.4 Ceriani, CEJ; Nahas, SJ (30 July 2018). "Exploding Head Syndrome: a Review". Current Pain and Headache Reports. 22 (10): 63. doi:10.1007/s11916-018-0717-1. PMID 30062616.
  6. Blom, Jan Dirk (2009-12-08). A Dictionary of Hallucinations. Springer Science & Business Media. ISBN 9781441912237. Archived from the original on 2021-08-28. Retrieved 2015-07-17.
  7. Larner, Andrew J.; Coles, Alasdair J.; Scolding, Neil J.; Barker, Roger A. (2011-01-19). A-Z of Neurological Practice: A Guide to Clinical Neurology. Springer Science & Business Media. ISBN 9781848829947. Archived from the original on 2021-08-28. Retrieved 2015-07-17.
  8. 8.0 8.1 Sharpless, Brian A (2017-04-06). "Characteristic symptoms and associated features of exploding head syndrome in undergraduates". Cephalalgia. 38 (3): 595–599. doi:10.1177/0333102417702128. PMID 28385085.
  9. A., Sharpless, Brian (2016-11-15). Unusual and rare psychological disorders : a handbook for clinical practice and research. ISBN 9780190245863. OCLC 952152912.
  10. International Classification of Sleep Disorders. Darien, IL: American Academy of Sleep Medicine. 2014.
  11. Thorpy, Michael J. (2012-10-01). "Classification of Sleep Disorders". Neurotherapeutics. 9 (4): 687–701. doi:10.1007/s13311-012-0145-6. ISSN 1933-7213. PMC 3480567. PMID 22976557.
  12. World Health Organization. International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems. 10th ed. Geneva, Switzerland: World Health Organization; 2008.
  13. American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders: DSM-5. 5th ed. Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Association; 2013.
  14. 14.0 14.1 14.2 Sharpless BA (2015). "Exploding head syndrome is common in college students". J Sleep Res. 24 (4): 447–9. doi:10.1111/jsr.12292. PMID 25773787.
  15. Otaiku AI (2018). "Did René Descartes have Exploding Head Syndrome?". J. Clin. Sleep Med. 14 (4): 675–8. doi:10.5664/jcsm.7068. PMC 5886445. PMID 29609724.
  16. Thorpy MJ, Plazzi G (2010). The Parasomnias and Other Sleep-Related Movement Disorders. Cambridge University Press. p. 231. ISBN 978-0-521-11157-7. Archived from the original on 2014-01-03. Retrieved 2011-03-18.

Further reading

  • Møller, Aage R.; Langguth, Berthold; DeRidder, Dirk; Kleinjung, Tobias (2010-11-16). Textbook of Tinnitus. Springer Science & Business Media. ISBN 9781607611455. Archived from the original on 2021-08-28. Retrieved 2015-07-17.

External links