Fact or Fiction? Hearing Explosions and Seeing Flashes of Light - The Startling Condition That Is Associated With Sleep

EHS, otherwise known as exploding head syndrome is a disorder that features loud noises being perceived such as cymbals crashing, gunshots or bomb explosions when awakening or going to sleep.

Despite the name of the condition, the syndrome is not typically linked to pain. However, a lot of distress, confusion and fear in sufferers can arise from the noisy attacks. Reports of palpitations and tachycardia have also become common.

While EHS is a distressing condition, not much is known about its underlying causes and prevalence. A number of scientists have approximated that a substantial percentage of the population of more than 10% is afflicted by EHS.

It has been shown that female population is at a higher risk in comparison to male with an average onset age of 50, although this claim is disputed by some researchers.

Theories Regarding EHS

A variety of theories exist regarding what may lead to EHS. For example, there have been speculations among some scientists about the syndrome being linked to temporal lobe seizures. A sudden shift within the components of the middle ear is another theory. Dysfunctional brainstem neurons, calcium signal impairments, anxiety and stress are other possible causes.

Due to exploding head syndrome’s benign nature, some individuals may not need medical treatment. On the other hand, if a person suffers from a considerable amount of distress or disturbed sleep as a result of EHS, treatment might be considered.

Certain antidepressants proved to be useful for some individuals. Blocking calcium channels as well as a non-pharmaceutical approach such as counseling, improving sleep hygiene and relaxation can also be beneficial and help to ease symptoms.

Aspects of EHS

  • This relatively rare and undocumented syndrome is characterized as a parasomnia event that consists of the subject experiencing loud bangs that are comparable to cymbals clashing, guns going off, bombs exploding or other types of indecipherable, loud noises that seem to be elicited from within the head.
  • Contrary to what the name suggests, exploding head syndrome does not have elements of swelling, pain or other physical aspects linked to it. It may lead to shortness of breath followed by flashes of bright light which is the result of the subject’s increased heart rate. The situation usually happens when coming out of deep sleep or prior to deep sleep.
  • Attacks may decrease or increase over time and can end up disappearing for long periods of time or completely of their own will. Subjects typically feel distress or fear after the occurrence.

 

Getting EHS

The people who are most likely to experience the syndrome are over the age of 50 with women being at higher risk than men. However, it has been reported among individuals who are as young as 10.

EHS is seen to be closely linked to extreme fatigue and stress in many people. The causes of the sensation in people are still not known but speculations of causes include sudden shifting in parts of the middle ear and minor seizures that affect the temporal lobe.

Treatment Options for EHS

Since EHS is not regarded as dangerous and may not drastically affect sleep, several individuals make the decision to look for help to deal with their symptoms.

  • The initial step is to consult a sleep doctor or specialist about medical history and sleep to make sure that the person is actually experiencing this condition rather than something else. There are other similar experiences that are known to be associated with certain drugs or medication. EHS may cause secondary insomnia.
  • Specified antidepressants are among the forms of medication that are used to treat the condition.
  • If the cause of episodes is stress, aiming to clear the problem is advisable. This may include hot baths, relaxing music yoga or reading before going to bed. These are steps that have showcased positive effects in terms of achieving quality sleep.
  • If sleep deprivation causes the disturbances, instituting a balanced routine is recommended with the inclusion of at least 6 hours of sleep each night. Other disorders that are related to sleep should be evaluated if they cause sleep deprivation.

EHS Symptoms

The benign condition causes a person to experience unreal noises that may be short and loud when waking up or falling asleep. These noises are often frightening or jarring for the individual. The mechanisms and causes generally remain unknown and while harmless, episodes are known to create impairment or distress in people’s lives.

  • With classification as a sleep related disorder and parasomnia, it is an unusual auditory hallucination because it happens when people are not fully awake. Individuals who experience imagined, loud noises as they wake up or fall asleep usually have a frightening, strong emotional reaction to sounds without significant pain being reported.
  • A relatively small percentage of people experience flashes of light, lighting, visual static and other visual disturbances. Some people may feel electrical tingling that rises to the head, strange sensations in the torso or heat before the hallucinations occur.
  • People experience shortness of breath, sweating, tachycardia, jerking, confusion and distress due to being in a heightened, aroused state.
  • The pattern of hallucinations varies with some people reporting a number of attacks that are followed by total or prolonged remission, having attacks over a number of weeks or months prior to attacks disappearing spontaneously or attacks recurring irregularly for most of a person’s lifetime.
  • Some people erroneously believe that these episodes are the effects of energy weapons that are directed rather than natural events that create the auditory effect. As a result, EHS has been at the core of conspiracy theories although there is no scientific evidence to backup non-natural origins of EHS.

 

Causes

Exact causes of EHS are unknown but some hypotheses have been forwarded with the most common theory being the dysfunction within the brainstem that is responsible for transitioning between sleeping and waking. Other theories regarding the causes of exploding head syndrome include the following:

  • PTSD
  • Calcium signal dysfunction
  • Broken and variable sleep
  • Anxiety and stress
  • Ear dysfunctions
  • Minor seizures that affect the temporal lobe.

Hallucinations and Loud Noises

As a sleep disorder, EHS is certainly in contention for the most astounding name. The people who have it are aware of how frustrating it can be while those who don’t are usually surprised to discover that the explosion is a sound inside the head during sleep instead of an actual, physical explosion.

Ongoing research since the first clinical records of EHS has been carried out in an attempt to identify how prevalent the disorder is,what are its causes and treatment options.

Parasomnia

Parasomnia refers to sleep disorders that happen between different stages of sleeping or during transition between sleeping and waking. People who have EHS imagine an alarming and sudden loud noise as they fall asleep or wake up.

EHS is not a dangerous condition but it can be terrifying or unsettling. It interferes with the affected individual’s sleep and can lead to sleep deprivation on a long-term basis if a person becomes afraid of sleep as a result.

Instances of EHS

During an episode of EHS, the sleepers hallucinate as they fall asleep or wake up. Noises that are commonly reported include electrical static, thunder, doors slamming, explosions, shouting, fireworks cymbals or gunfire.

  • The actual sound may be heard in one of the ears or both with some patients reporting that the sound comes from within their head. The sound typically lasts for a few seconds.
  • Along with the sound, individuals may feel an electrical shock or sensation that travels from the torso to the head or witness flashes of bright light. Feelings of anxiety as well as hear palpitations and increased heart rate usually accompany the sound.
  • Sufferers have a harder time getting back to sleep because of their heightened arousal as a result. While the disorder itself is actually painless and harmless, the fear and anxiety resulting from an episode may contribute to insomnia and subsequent daytime fatigue.
  • The good news is that people who have EHS often experience less frequent episodes as time goes on.

 

Comparisons to Sleep Paralysis

Researchers are still scratching their heads about what causes this condition. Potential culprits have been explored such as bleeding within the brain, temporal lobe seizures and issues that affect the inner ear.

  • Similar to sleep paralysis, the leading theory suggests that a disruption of the brainstem’s reticular formation causes EHS. This formation controls the transition between being wakeful and asleep along with your muscle control and motor reflexes.
  • Experiencing jerks is common during the transitional period between being asleep and alert. Jerking refers to the spontaneous involuntary muscle spasms that you may experience when you are waking up or falling asleep.
  • Researchers believe the jerks occur when there is breakdown in communication among neurons within the reticular formation.

Visual and Auditory Neurons

  • While you sleep, your visual and auditory neurons sleep as well. Your brain typically paralyzes your muscles during REM sleep in order to prevent you from acting out your dreams physically. EHS and sleep paralysis may happen when this process is disrupted, with the brain’s neurons waking up before different parts of the body, including the muscles.
  • People who have sleep paralysis may experience hallucinations along with jerks, dream symptoms of EHS like sensations of falling, loud sounds or bright lights. Meanwhile, in the instance of EHS, the area of the brain that deals with sound may be boosted while suppressing waves that are associated with drowsiness.
  • The brain is comparable to a computer with a series of steps that are taken to shut it down. While going to sleep, your visual and auditory neurons are usually inhibited. During EHS, it is believed that rather than shutting down, the neurons arise all at once. This creates the perception of sound that leads to sufferers hearing loud noises.

Risk Factors

  • Although experiencing the symptoms of this syndrome is minimally understood, it is not as rare as some people may think it is. A large number of people experience it during their lifetime.
  • Individuals with sleep paralysis are more likely to end up experiencing EHS as well as people who have psychiatric disorders with a slightly higher chance of having EHS than the general population. High levels of physical or emotional stress are also linked to the disorder.
  • A general assumption is that EHS is more prevalent among women than men and adults who are 50 yeas old or older. The differences between genders have been disputed in subsequent studies that highlights the need for more research to be done as the prevalence among older adults and women is a theory that has been contradicted.

 

Dealing with EHS

While an official treatment solution for EHS is yet to be unveiled, there are various things that affected people can do to improve the quality of their sleep.

Consulting Your Doctor

If you suspect that you have EHS, a sleep journal or diary is a good way to keep track of the descriptions and frequency of your episodes in order for you to be able to share the information with your doctor. They will usually ask you questions during your appointment to make sure the hallucinations are not associated with another psychiatric or sleep disorder.

For example, people with PTSD may react to a bomb that goes off in a nightmare. This type of situation is different from EHS as the sounds that are linked to exploding head syndrome are usually without context and random.

Acknowledging the Hallucination

When waking up from EHS, it can be relieving to remember that the sound is harmless and not real. In fact, getting reassurance from a doctor can be sufficient enough for several individuals to go into remission.

Healthy Diet

Consume a healthy diet that consists of nutrients that are known to be beneficial to sleep such as whole grains, leafy greens, fish and nuts. Avoid eating heavy meals before going to bed and restrict your caffeine intake and any sugary food or excessively spicy, fatty foods.

It is also important to moderate your use of drugs and alcohol. Such substances can lead to sleep disturbances like EHS and diminish the quality of your sleep.

Stress Relief

Since there is an association between EHS and stress, it is advisable for sufferers to engage in activities such as deep breathing exercises, meditation, yoga and other relaxation and stress-relieving techniques. You can develop a calming routine that includes aromatherapy or a warm bath before bedtime.  

Improving Sleep Hygiene

You need to do whatever you can to ensure you get enough sleep since lack of sleep can lead to stress. Consider going to sleep and waking up at around the same time each day. Keep your room quiet and dark. Avoid using electronics shortly before bed and remove them from your bedroom.

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Life with EHS

If you have ever experienced the sensation of hearing a loud sudden noise as you sleep and it turns out to be an imaginary sound, you are not going crazy or losing your mind. The reality is that you may be one of a large number of people dealing with exploding head syndrome, an interesting phenomenon that occurs when a person is falling asleep.

Disorienting and Strange

  • EHS typically begins upon hearing a loud noise that may range from the sound of thunder and lighting to gunfire and fireworks. It is usually painless and lasts for a few seconds. EHS suffers often describe it as a sudden increase of noise that is followed by a jarring and profound sound explosion and bright flash that obstructs vision, similar to a spotlight being directed towards the front of your face.
  • Responses to EHS vary with some people thinking that what they hear is a real event that leads them to waking up confused and trying to find where the noise is coming from. Others who experience it more frequently may become anxious and avoid sleep or panic when it is time to go to bed.
  • Some individuals relate the events to certain conspiracy theories based on the belief that the events are not natural and are caused by malicious government agencies. Conspiracy theorists may be reluctant to believe scientific explanations and justifications.

What Can You Do about It?

Treatment for this condition is not well established and controlled trails are yet to be undertaken. It may or may not be shocking to discover that minimal investments have been made into studying EHS and some doctors are not aware of its existence.

  • Sufferers are advised to avoid panicking and to realize that the event is natural.
  • People who experience EHS at a higher degree that consists of a troubling intensity and frequency may use anti-seizure medication, calcium channel or signal blockers that are usually used to address headache disorders or antidepressants.
  • Generally, whenever you have a sleep disorder, one of the best and easiest things to do is control your sleep patterns by going to bed at the same time and avoid consuming caffeine or alcohol before bed. These are simple steps that can help reduce the episodes.
  • EHS is not hazardous and is a phenomenal experience that you can share with friends and loved ones when you wake up.

Understanding the Symptoms

For people who have EHS, it is common to hear noises that sound like explosions as they drift off to sleep and around the time when they wake up. While these are hallucinations that are imagined. EHS consists of noises that feel realistic when they occur. The noises may compel you to wake up and prevent you from falling asleep again.

Experiences might repeat or may happen only once. Loud noises are usually restricted to the stages of sleep and often go away when you are awake. Some people experience flashes of light as well and other symptoms may include:

  • Muscle twitches
  • Sense of distress or fear
  • Elevated heart rate.

Understanding the Causes

As emphasized before, the causes of the syndrome are not completely understood. Some researchers attribute it to a neurological issue and others believe it is linked to clinical anxiety and fear. It may also be a result of the parts of the middle ear shifting at night.

People who have a history of sleep interruptions or high stress levels appear to be at a higher risk of EHS. Although doctors previously thought it was common in women and older adults, research shows that it is relatively common among younger people as well.

Diagnosing EHS

If a person has symptoms of EHS, the doctor may refer them to a sleep specialist. Your doctor may ask you to create a sleep diary that contains your symptoms along with keeping track of your emotional state and dietary habits each night for a specified number of weeks.

In some situations, you may be required to sleep in what is known as a sleep laboratory. This enables a sleep specialist to conduct tests for the purpose of evaluating various things that are going on in your body while you sleep. These include neurological activities in an attempt to pinpoint the actual cause.

Basis of Treatment Plans

This condition does not have a standard form of treatment. Treatment plans depend on factors such as your age and symptoms as well as the impact of these symptoms on your life.

  • Certain kinds of medications can be beneficial for some, which include medications that affects neurological activity like antidepressants and anticonvulsants.
  • Other worthwhile treatment solutions include changing your sleep routine, psychotherapy and counseling, stress reduction, medication and relaxation.
  • For some individuals, simply discovering that condition is not harmful and that it is not something they should be excessively concerned about can be relieving.

Complications

EHS symptoms are not dangerous but for some people, the sensation of waking up in fear can induce ongoing anxiety. This anxiety can make it very difficult to fall asleep in some cases, which may further lead to psychological and physical problems over time.

Key Aspects of EHS

You may have the condition if you experience the following:

  • Imagining an explosion or sudden loud noise in your head before falling asleep or after waking up at night
  • If the sounds are usually free of any feeling of pain
  • If such events suddenly wake you and frighten you. 

It is also essential to be aware of something else that may be causing the imagined noise. Rather than by this phenomenon, it might be caused by one of the following:

  • Substance abuse
  • Mental health disorder
  • Medication
  • Medical condition
  • A sleep disorder.

Sensory Disorder

  • The sight of bright flashes of light or the sound of something crashing to the ground are some of the things that individuals who have EHS experience, although the events do not actually occur, as explained in various studies. While not much is known about this startling condition, it does seem to be much more common than previously thought.
  • The name of the condition may be misleading as there are no actual explosions that take a place. Instead, the phenomenon is described as a sensory sleep disturbance.
  • When someone is falling asleep or waking up, they may hear a loud and thunderous noise. Previous studies show that more than 10% of people experience the condition at some point in their lives.

Distinguishing Exploding Head

  • Scientists have been baffled by why the phenomenon occurs. While the name invokes grisly images, the syndrome is actually benign and does not usually require treatment. In fact, reassurance from a doctor is one of the best courses of treatment. Patients are assured that the condition is not a symptom of a serious illness. When these assurances are heard, some patients may go into remission.
  • It is easy to confuse EHS with other conditions like mental health disorders, side effects from substance abuse or medications, different headaches or other sleep disorders. It is not unusual for nightmare disorder and PTSD patients to hear noises that startle them out of their sleep.
  • However, exploding head is distinguished from other conditions by a noted lack of context for the noise. PTSD patients, for example, might hear noises when they have a flashback. Exploding head just consists of a loud noise. 

Medical Intervention

Upon confirming that a patient has EHS, a doctor may ask to conduct a sleep study overnight to determine the presence of other sleep disorders since a percentage of patients with other types of sleeping disorders are also likely to develop this syndrome.

  • The doctor may record the movement of legs and arms, chart breathing and heartbeat during sleep as well as brain waves.
  • If another treatable sleep disorder is not found, a physician may recommend improving sleep hygiene so that the patient’s practices include a morning exercise routine, not watching television or reading in bed, limiting naps, cutting out coffee and alcohol after 5pm, ensuring the bedroom is dark and quiet and keeping a regular sleeping schedule.
  • In terms of medication, calcium channel blockers and tricyclic antidepressants are known to be helpful for some people.
  • The advice that can help everyone, including EHS patients, is to learn how to relax and reduce stress.

History and Descriptions of EHS

  • The first description of EHS was back in 1876 but the disorder’s name was not coined until the late 80s. Reports of how many people experience EHS vary, from sleep experts who cite sleep deprivation as a risk factor for EHS among students to estimates that show women being at higher risk than men.
  • The 50s are the average age of onset for the condition but it has been reported to happen even in 10 year old individuals.
  • There are reports of palpitations and the feeling of the heart skipping a beat or beating too fast. Some describe an electrical shock or sensation that travels to their head when they go through an episode. 

Conclusion

Just after getting into bed, looking forward to a restful night of sleep and setting in, you hear the sound of a massive explosion. The explosion may be loud enough to frighten you and send a shockwave throughout your entire body.

When you open your eyes, you cannot find the source of the noise and no bombs or fireworks can be seen. This is a hallucination and fortunately, the EHS is milder than its name suggests. It is a relatively harmless form of parasomnia that is characterized by the nervous system’s unusual behavior during sleep.