Exploding Head Syndrome: What Are The Causes Behind This Strange Condition?

Published December 15, 2017
Updated August 25, 2018

Exploding head syndrome (EHS) is a little understood medical condition that afflicts upwards of 15 million people.

Exploding Head Syndrome

Max Pixel/A man clutching his head.

Welcome to the world of exploding head syndrome. No, it’s not about your head expanding so much that it blows up and shatters into a million bloody pieces.

Exploding head syndrome, also known as EHS, is an actual psychological disorder that may seem rare, but it’s more common than you think. Experts believe between 10 to 15 percent of the population suffers from EHS. That means between 35 and 50 million may suffer from this malady in the United States.

What Is Exploding Head Syndrome?

The American Sleep Association characterizes EHS as the perception of loud noises, often a bang, bomb, gunshot, explosion or cymbal crash, as a person falls asleep or begin to awaken. The sounds last for just a few seconds. They are quite jarring and can cause difficulty sleeping.

To some, EHS means sensing a crescendo of noise that ends in an explosion of sound and light before simmering down and going away in a fizzle of electrical sound. Everyone responds to EHS differently, but the main problem is that it’s frightening and disorienting.

Surprisingly and despite its name, EHS is not especially physically painful as the brain simply perceives a sound that really isn’t there. Sufferers might feel a sudden stab of pain in the head, but most people report no pain aside from the jarring effect. Females are more likely to suffer from this condition, while the onset of exploding head syndrome usually occurs after the age of 50.

Most people who have EHS don’t require medication or treatment. If you’re one of the rare people who have trouble sleeping due to these loud noises, a doctor may prescribe an antidepressant that slightly alters the brain chemistry. Try relaxation exercises, better sleep hygiene or psychological counseling if brain-altering medication isn’t for you.


Max Pixel/This is your brain on EHS. Just kidding.

Theories As To The Cause

The mystery of EHS is that doctors don’t know what causes these “explosions” in people’s head. Scientists theorize EHS may come from small seizures in the temporal lobe – the part of the brain responsible for perceiving sounds. Another theory is that this disorder comes from shifts among the components of the middle ear. A person’s EHS may come from stress, anxiety or being overtired. It could also occur due to malfunctions in the brain stem or abnormal calcium cycling in the nervous system.

Current research points to problems with how the brain shuts down on the way to sleep.

The brain naturally turns off the senses of sight and hearing during sleep, but in cases of EHS it may not turn off those circuits properly. Another cause may stem from isolated sleep paralysis, a condition whereby someone awakens but can’t move for a few minutes. The overall rate of exploding head syndrome among people with isolated sleep paralysis is double or triple the ordinary population.

One outlandish idea perpetuated by conspiracy theorists is that EHS is part of government experiment. Current science debunks a government experiment, but the overall point is that EHS is scary and unexplainable.

Try to get some sleep and not worry about exploding head syndrome. It’s more annoying than it is harmless. Doctors suggest having a good bedtime routine by going to bed and getting up at the same time every night. You have nothing to fear about explosions near your head, unless your a demolitions expert.

After learning about exploding head syndrome, read why Portugal has preserved the head of a 19th century serial killer. Then, see the man who survived a three-foot spike shooting through his head.

William DeLong
William DeLong is a freelance wordsmith. He thanks you for reading his content.
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