Loud crash at 3 a.m.? It may be exploding head syndrome

By | February 25, 2010

Marie Raymond sometimes wakes up in the middle of the night, heart pounding, freaked out by the sound of her name being shouted loud and clear. Other times she’ll be awakened by the sound of a huge crash, as if someone has broken a window or knocked over a set of dishes.

“The sound is terrifying — super loud, like someone has broken in,” says Raymond, a 38-year-old arts administrator from Seattle. “But when I get up to look around, nothing’s amiss and everything’s quiet.” After dealing with it off and on for the last several months, Raymond believes she may have exploding head syndrome. She hasn’t seen a doctor about it, but has done some research online.

As strange as the name sounds, exploding head syndrome is actually a rare and relatively undocumented sleep phenomenon. While sleeping or dozing, a person with the condition hears a terrifically loud sound in their head, such as a bomb exploding, a clash of cymbals or a gun going off.

“It’s usually described as a loud bang or pop that occurs in the first third of the night,” says Dr. Neil Kline, sleep physician and representative of the American Sleep Association in Wilmington, Del. “It’s a sensory phenomenon. The individual senses that some type of explosion has occurred nearby, but ultimately realizes it’s in their head. It’s not associated with pain or with any disorder that we know of and there are no physiological medical consequences that are associated with it.”

Thought to be brought on by anxiety or extreme fatigue and occurring in clusters during stressful periods, exploding head syndrome is not dangerous, according to the American Sleep Association Web site.

It can be disconcerting, though, stirring up images of a David Cronenberg movie. “Individuals can develop an aversion to falling asleep,” says Kline. “They’ll develop insomnia because they’re concerned by these occurrences. But they’re usually rare. I’ve never heard of it occurring regularly.”

First described in 1920 as a “snapping of the brain,” there is little to be found on the phenomenon in medical literature. Some patients experience a bright flash of light along with the loud explosion or crash, according to a 1989 study in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery and Psychiatry that looked at 50 patients suffering from the syndrome. In almost every case there are physical aftereffects, such as “a sense of alarm, together with a cold sweat, labored breathing and tachycardia” (a rapid heart rate). …

via Loud crash at 3 a.m.? It may be your exploding head – The Body Odd – msnbc.com.

2 thoughts on “Loud crash at 3 a.m.? It may be exploding head syndrome

  1. Lindsey

    this happens to me, but only when I’m trying to get to sleep… I’ll be about semi-conscious and suddenly it’s like there’s some huge, unidentifiable noise right behind my head and I’ll wake up again.

    I can’t really identify my noise… it’s not really an explosion, or a gunshot, or my name being called… it’s almost more like… the loudest silence you’ve ever heard? Since it’s in my head, I feel it more than hear it. Like I’ve been struck on the back of the head with a big sheet of rubber.

    Anyway, it’s definitely not fun. When it first started happening, I became scared of going to sleep, it was so jarring. Eventually I learned ways to divert it (it happens much less often when I sleep on my side or my back, for instance) and once I convinced myself there was nothing wrong with my brain, it became much less frightening.

    Looking back over the article, though, I think my experience might be something milder… “a cold sweat, labored breathing, and a rapid heart rate…” I never had any of that. A sense of alarm, yes, but it was never that extreme.

    Well, anyway. Interesting.

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