Bang! A noise of a gunshot or a possible explosion would cause anyone to jump in bed and wonder what exactly is going on.
With a racing heart, you eventually come to the realization that no obvious accident has happened, but you know that you heard a distinct loud noise.
So what gives?
Apparently there is a rare disorder that could explain some loud noises you may hear during sleep. It's called “exploding head syndrome.”
According to the American Sleep Association, this is a parasomnia sleep disorder. Parasomnia means “general sleep disruptions from the REM (rapid eye movement) sleep cycle and non-REM sleep cycles.” These disruptions can cause a person to wake up or only partially wake up, although they are “asleep” during the event.
The Association describes exploding head syndrome as follows:
“Exploding head syndrome is a rare and relatively undocumented parasomnia event in which the subject experiences a loud bang in their head 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.”
Fortunately there is no pain involved in this syndrome. Your head does not actually explode.
Sometimes patients can experience shortness of breath and see bright lights, but this could be accounted for by increased heart rate, according to the Association.
Generally symptoms are experienced prior to deep sleep, or just as a person comes out of deep sleep.
Symptoms are not always consistent with this disorder. Syndrome sufferers may go for a long stretch of time without hearing the noises. However, just hearing it once could cause distress or fear.
Although it can happen at any age, according to the Association, most people experience symptoms after they are 50 years old, and women are more likely to suffer from the condition.
The Association suggests reducing stress and getting at least six hours of sleep every night to avoid sleep deprivation.
Dr. Nitun Verma, the medical director at the Washington Township Center for Sleep Disorders said in an email that he has treated only two patients with exploding head syndrome due to its rarity.
One of his patients was a tenured professor at a university who had to go on leave due to her symptoms, but after treatment she was able to restart her career.
She was in her 50s when she started experiencing symptoms, he said.
“The problem was that she didn't know about the condition,” Verma said. “So naturally when she heard a loud bang in their head as she fell asleep, she thought she was having a stroke.”
“She went to the ER and a head CT showed up normal,” he added. “Her symptoms were: she heard a loud bang (without pain) at sleep onset for a few seconds. But this caused stress and she had anxiety about falling asleep.”
He said that the cause of the syndrome is unknown, but triggers could be stress, fatigue, seizures, ear dysfunction, and withdrawal from medications like benzodiazepines.
His patient was able to resume her daily activities and go back to work within a week of taking the medication clonazepam, which removed her symptoms.
Have you ever experienced exploding head syndrome? If so, please share in the comments below.
Also, if you’re interested in reading more about the condition, there are links to more articles below.
American Sleep Association. Exploding Head Syndrome. Web. May 21, 2014.
American Sleep Association. Parasomnias. Web. May 22, 2014.
Washington State University. Sorensen, Eric. ‘Exploding head syndrome’ a real, overlooked sleep disorder. Web. May 21, 2014.
NBC News. The Body ODD. Maples, Diane. Loud crash at 3 a.m.? It may be your exploding head. Web. May 21, 2014.
U.S. News. Kossman, Sienna. 5 Bizarre Sleep Conditions. Web. May 21, 2014.
The Daily Mail. Dobson, Roger. Is exploding head syndrome the reason you can’t sleep? Web. May 21, 2014.
Verma, Nitun. Email interview. May 20, 2014. Twitter: @nitunverma.
Reviewed May 22, 2014
by Michele Blacksberg RN
Edited by Jody Smith
Add a Comment12 Comments
This is definitely a stress related problem. Was living in a very stressful enviorment and heard loud banging on wall three times (hard) and woke. No one said they banged on the wall. Would also hear my name being called from outside bedroom door and awoken but no one said they said anything. Anyway moved into a more relaxing stress free atmosphere and it all stopped. Was in my 30's at the time. Best cure relieve stress. Body does all kinds of strange things due to stress.February 28, 2016 - 11:42am
I have also had this. I am 23 and have had it a handful of times over the past few years. I am highly stressed most of the time. 2 kids at a young age and so on. Mine happens when I am about to fall asleep and last time it sounded just like a nail gun or tyre popping inside my head. Very scary and strange. Wish there was more info on why.February 20, 2016 - 12:33am
I am a 35 year old female. First time I heard the sound all went black in my head and I thought I died. Second time was the same. Last night it was during the night and the sound was like something fell in mh kids birthday. Realy loud thud more like. All this in one year. I have just had a baby,maybe it is the sleep deprivation. My GP said it could be blood vessels in my head?January 25, 2016 - 11:09pm
I thought I was going crazy until I found this and other articles online. I am an RN and had never heard of this before. I am a 35 year old female and, for the past year or so, I've had this occur on 5 or 6 different occasions. Once it happened twice in one night. I can only describe it as an extremely loud, singular gunshot or firecracker going off. It always occurs just as I'm falling asleep. I awaken suddenly with a full body jolt similar to a hypnic jerk, but it feels more in response to the noise itself. The odd thing is that, even after the first episode, I was, and am always, immediately aware that the sound is not of external origin; that it was an auditory hallucination. That realization in and of itself is quite frightening; not to mention the experience of being so startled as you are at the point when you are most relaxed and about to transition into sleep. I feel an immediate pulse of adrenaline, accompanied by anxiety, muscle tension, and increased heart rate and breathing. I also get quite angry because now I have to try to get myself relaxed enough again to try to sleep. I've had insomnia since infancy; difficulty both falling and staying asleep. I also have a history of RLS, though episodes have become much less frequent. I also experience a hypnic jerk almost every night. I'm definitely prone to feeling stressed. I can't really remember whether or not I was experiencing a higher level of stress when I first started to have these episodes; though, I will say that it is likely. Thankfully, these episodes have been few and far between because it is quite distressing to say the least. I'm glad I found this is, so far, considered benign and not singular to me. And, more importantly, that I am not crazy!May 7, 2015 - 5:24am
About once or twice a year (for the past 5 years or so), I've been suddenly woken up by a crashing sound, like something heavy has fallen off a table or counter top in my living room or kitchen. I get up to investigate, in case the cat has knocked something over, only to find everything normal, and that I'm the only one in the family who heard anything. I also occasionally am woken up by the sound of a doorbell ringing, also with the rest of the family having heard nothing. Weird.April 12, 2015 - 7:10am
Anonymous...I have had the exact same thing happen to me in the last year. Exactly like you. One time, I woke to sound of someone crashing through my door and through my livingroom, twice, woke, nothing, last night, it was someone knocking on the door. Went out, no one. At times, it is the doorbell. These symptoms stopped when I started to take benadryl to help me sleep, but started last night because I stopped taking benadryl because I found out it was giving me night time twitches. Twitches have stopped, but noises have started again. This is really frustrating because it will wake me at 3 in the morning and I can't go back to sleep. I keep thinking it is a ghost. I need to get to the bottom of this because I hate it. P.S. I am on a c-pap machine. ShawnApril 15, 2015 - 11:19am
I experienced many things at night (though not sleep paralysis). My husband said he heard me talk in sleep and saw me set myself on bed plus some other alike things (though no walking). It doesnt happen all the time. Even I woke up with my hand in the air (dreamt I was shaking hand with someone) totally paralysed in that hand so I had to put it down (on the bed) with my other hand. It happened to me that I woke up because some of my body part (leg/hand) twitched. Furthermore it happens to me that I have it hard to sleep at night and I wake up hearing some noise. It can occur a few times at night, noise is usually medium to quite loud and different. When I wake up I'm always free to move with my body and really angry - not scared. I get angry that something woke me up while I barely managed to fall asleep (or almost do it). Sometimes I also see things (unusual) in my room when I wake up. It can be connected to waking up from noise or just that I wake up opening my eyes and seeing things in my room. Things I see usually look like holograms, like I saw disco lights in my ceiling. I thought once I heard noise and woke up seeing my husband on the side of bed. I got pissed and then I noticed he was half transparent and dissapeared - it was like still dreaming while I was awoke because my husband was sleeping next to me. I got angry as usually. I don't get scared (even when I saw hands sticking from ceiling or myself like if I was in the other side of room) but I get angry as it is my reaction to sudden situation usually during daytime.
I get these night problems from time to time but I remember I had them as teenager aswell. Sometimes its connected to stressful situation in life so I have hard to sleep and then I tend to sleep and wake up seeing things that dissapear soon after. Sometimes though I dont find any reasons to why this things happen as I have no stressful situation in life. One common thing is that during that nights I almost always have hard to fall asleep though I am not 100% certain that weird things didnt occur when I had easy to fall asleep. One more thing is that I sleep deep so when I actually fall asleep I am not easly woken up by noises or it takes long time (heavy rain with thunder rarely wake me up). I wish I could diagnose this but I dont go to doctors as they don't care to help unless things are life threatening and as I beleive it isn't I don't feel need to take their time. I'm quite sure there is more people like me but their cases are never reigstered. One downside is that I can wake up very tired...April 11, 2015 - 12:03pm
This has happened to me many times as well, I had no idea this was a syndrome or sleep disorder. I recently turned 40 and am female, I first experienced this around 3-4 years ago. The first time it happened, I felt like my head exploded In my sleep. It sounded like a LOUD gunshot. I was terrified! I had know idea what was going on, I was questioning whether I had a seizure in my sleep. I never mentioned it to a doctor, I didn't know what to think. It happened for many nights after the first time. Now it randomly happens.April 4, 2015 - 4:25pm
This happens to me frequently. It also happens when I am waking in the morning too. That transition period is when it generally happens.
As someone who experienced a lot of childhood trauma, it can be paralyzing. I have gotten used to it now, though it can still cause a moment or two of fright.March 16, 2015 - 8:37am
I am relieved that this is some kind of a condition. This has happened to me on numerous occasions, and I thought a gun shot was going off in my head. The reaction was so strong that my head was snapping back as I would wake up suddenly right when I was drifting off to sleep...it felt like I had suffered from some kind of impact or trauma to the temple, and I was jolted out of my sleep. I kept wondering if it was some kind of bad dream or premonition of a future event....November 2, 2014 - 8:19am