Take Cover: One in Five Has Exploding Head Syndrome

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No, exploding head syndrome is not when someone's head spontaneously blows up, it's actually when they hear loud noises in their heads as they fall asleep.
No, exploding head syndrome is not when someone’s head spontaneously blows up, it’s actually when they hear loud noises in their heads as they fall asleep.

Thanks to TV ads, I am an expert on a great many maladies that I don’t actually have. I am au courant on COPD, mesothelioma, BPH, ED, a host of problems that arise with a lady’s waterworks, Type II diabetes, restless leg syndrome and more.

I recently ran across a malady that I surely should have known about before: Exploding head syndrome sounds like the kind of thing that is hard to miss.

Like so much other medical stuff, exploding head syndrome is something of a misnomer. It is not to be taken literally as a description of the problem. I say that’s kind of a shame because if people’s heads were blowing up spontaneously, the evening news would be much more interesting. Moreover, there’d probably be enough interest to get funding to end it. At there very least, there’d be a telethon or something. “Please help us stop EHS before another head explodes.”

I can see the ads now: “Hey did you hear about Dave? Yeah, EHS. Never thought a guy like him would just have his head explode like that? He should have used Cranium X like I do every morning.”

Sadly, exploding head syndrome doesn’t involve gray-matter splattered walls and shards of skull in the carpet. Instead, those suffering from EHS hear a loud noise as they are drifting off to sleep that turns out to be imaginary.

The American Sleep Association (which must have the most restful annual conventions imaginable) explains, “Exploding head syndrome is a rare and relatively undocumented parasomnia event in which the subject experiences a loud bang similar to a bomb exploding, a gun going off, a clash of cymbals or any other form of loud, indecipherable noise that seems to originate from inside the head. Contrary to the name, exploding head syndrome has no elements of pain, swelling or any other physical trait associated with it. They may be perceived as having bright flashes of light accompanying them, or result in shortness of breath, though this is likely caused by the increased heart rate of the subject after experiencing it. It most often occurs just before deep sleep, and sometimes upon coming out of deep sleep.”

Britain’s Daily Mail stated, “Doctors suspect exploding head syndrome is caused by problems with the brain shutting down as a person is falling asleep. Dr Brian Sharpless, of Washington State University, explained when the brain goes to sleep, it’s like a computer shutting down. Motor, sound and visual brain cells turn off in stages. But for people with exploding head syndrome, instead of shutting down properly, the brain cells responsible for sound are thought to fire all at once, creating a blast of energy that the brain interprets as a loud noise. ‘That’s why you get these crazy-loud noises that you can’t explain, and they’re not actual noises in your environment,’ Dr Sharpless said.”

Medical lore suggested that EHS happened most frequently in people over 50. However, Dr. Sharpless and his minions (grad students) studied 211 undergrads for sleep paralysis and EHS, and they found it rather more widespread than previously imagined.

So, what do you do if you have exploding head syndrome? Not much really. Medical science is just now getting around to studying it, although the symptoms were first described 150 years ago. The good people at SleepEducation.com suggest the following: “If you notice exploding head symptoms while you are sleep deprived, then try to get more sleep every night. Most people need between six and eight hours of sleep per night. If stress triggers exploding head symptoms, then you should consider some form of relaxation. This will help prevent stress and exploding head events. Stress relief could include short walks, reading before bed, yoga, or whatever works for you. Alcohol is a poor form of stress relief and causes sleep disruptions. There is some evidence that the medicine clomipramine may help in treating exploding head symptoms. If you feel you need medications, then it is best to see a sleep specialist or your doctor.”

When I first moved to New York back in the 1980s, I thought I had experienced EHS. Every night when my head hit the pillow, I heard a terrible crashing noise. However, I was living across the street from where the Sanitation Department parked its garbage trucks. So, it turns out that I didn’t have EHS. Instead, I had a bad case of LFN — loud fucking neighbors. The treatment is to move.

Jeff Myhre is a contributing journalist for TheBlot Magazine

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