Wake Up With a Bang? You May Have Exploding Head Syndrome

Why you should care

Because we all need a good night’s sleep.

This OZY original series explores the past, present and future of sleep. How did you sleep? It's a critical question for everyone, and this OZY original series explores the present and future of sleep ... as well as its weird past.

The first time it happened, Kaitlin Ugolik — then a stressed-out 20-something — was terrified. As she drifted off to sleep, the sound of a gunshot rang out and jolted her awake. She scanned her surroundings; nothing seemed awry.

As it continued happening, several times a month, Ugolik’s fear transformed into curiosity. Sometimes the sound would resemble a cascading wave, other times crashing cymbals. What’s more, she says, it wasn’t just a sound. It was almost a feeling, “like something was happening inside my head,” says the journalist, now 30 years old.

Perhaps that’s why science gave this condition the most terrifying name ever: exploding head syndrome (EHS). While the condition is mostly harmless, researchers are realizing it’s more common than they first thought:

Nearly 30 percent of respondents in a recent study say they’ve experienced the condition at some point in their lives.

In a paper published in December, a group of sleep experts found that 30 percent of their international sample of 1,683 respondents between the age of 18 and 82 reported a lifetime prevalence of the condition. But there’s a catch, says co-author Dan Denis: The researchers recruited many respondents from a web forum of folks interested in lucid dreaming. “So they’re probably a group of people that already have quite a range of unusual sleep experiences,” he says, adding that the true figure is likely lower. By contrast, the National Sleep Foundation reported that only about 1 in 10 adults suffer from restless legs syndrome, characterized by the urge to move one’s legs.

Ask leading EHS expert Brian Sharpless, who has researched the disorder’s prevalence among college-age students, and he’d place the statistic closer to 13.5 percent. But that’s still pretty surprising: “I was shocked that it was that high,” says Sharpless, an associate professor at the American School of Professional Psychology at Argosy University, Northern Virginia.

 

The good news is that EHS is relatively harmless — not, as Ugolik first suspected, a sign of deeper physical or neurological dangers. Less encouraging, though, is that experts still don’t know exactly what triggers the condition, although the most popular theory points to the brain stem’s failure to inhibit motor, visual and auditory neurons in preparation for sleep. That this particular academic field is relatively underfunded, and that only around 11 percent of people are believed to report the condition, doesn’t help the effort to dig deeper into it. That may be why the more conspiracy-minded often grasp for implausible explanations, Sharpless says, such as government agents “using directed energy weapons at them while they sleep to drive them nuts.”

Meanwhile, Denis and his colleagues are interested in further examining the condition by pursuing a longitudinal study, in which they’d track participants over a broad period of time. That way, they’d be able to investigate links between EHS and, for instance, poor sleep quality.

As for Ugolik, she says learning to better manage stress helped reduce the episodes to around twice a year. Her advice to others facing the condition: Address the core issues that typically mess with sleep, such as caffeine intake, physical activity or work-related stress. “Anything that might interfere with sleep seems like it might lead to this,” she says.

First and foremost, though? “Don’t panic.”

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