Exploding head syndrome sounds like something out of a horror movie, but it's a real phenomenon that researchers have discovered is far more common than thought.
People who experience exploding head syndrome feel as if they've been awakened by a loud noise such as a thunderclap or a slammed door. It can be startling and scary.
"It's interpreted as a sensation of exploding, but what's critical is that unlike medically worrisome conditions, there doesn't seem to be anything physically dangerous going on," says Christopher Jones, MD, a neurologist at University of Utah Health.
In a study, researchers at Washington State University interviewed more than 200 undergraduate students to find out how many had experienced exploding head syndrome. They found that 18% experienced it at least once, which contradicts earlier research suggesting that it was a rare phenomenon primarily affecting people older than 50. For about 3% of the students in the study, it was frequent or intrusive enough to have "clinically significant distress."
About 37 percent of the students in the study who experienced exploding head syndrome also experienced isolated sleep paralysis, a condition in which people are awake but find that they temporarily can't move. Like exploding head syndrome, it is physically harmless but can be a scary experience.
Scientists don't understand why these puzzling conditions happen, but they believe that the same part of the brainstem is responsible for both. "When the brain changes from wake to sleep, there are some pretty big changes," Jones says. "All these sensory motor capabilities [we have] when we're awake have to be reprogrammed."
The brain can freeze up the way a computer or smartphone does. "We know there is a sleep-wake 'switch' in the brain and systems of neurotransmitters that sort of stabilize that switch," Jones says. That switch doesn't always work perfectly.
The important thing to remember is that exploding head syndrome isn't dangerous. "The public health message is that knowledge is power," Jones says. "If they get some knowledge, they usually are able to tolerate it better."