Most people are familiar with the feeling of drifting off into sleep and being woken by a loud noise or other distraction. It is hard to imagine what it must be like to have Exploding Head Syndrome, a condition where sufferers experience a loud noise in the head before falling asleep.
This imaginary sound is harmless, but distressing and frightening, especially for children who may find it difficult to fall asleep after the event. Sufferers describe the sound as being similar to a bomb exploding, a loud bang or a gigantic crash. It usually happens just before falling asleep but can happen during the night or before waking. On occasions it may be less intense, be periodic or occur over several nights. Some sufferers describe seeing a flash of light, or even experience the sensation of a stab in the head at the same time.
The cause of Exploding Head Syndrome is unknown and can be confused with headaches and remain undiagnosed. It is suspected that it is more common in women than men. It affects all ages – there have been reports of children as young as ten experiencing the condition – but is more common in young adults and the middle aged. Usually it diminishes over the years and many sufferers are able to adapt and manage to sleep well.
The condition can be confused with headaches, the use of prescriptive and non prescriptive drugs or mental illness. Parents with children suffering from the condition may confuse it with a nightmare or other trauma. Sufferers should consult their GP if the condition persists and causes distress, loss of sleep or daytime drowsiness. It is common for sufferers to fear the condition is related to other illnesses such as a brain tumour, stroke or a mental problem. A GP will be able to investigate the condition and provide reassurance and help.
Anxiety is one of the suggested causes and learning how to relax helps reduce the frequency of the problem. Episodes may be more likely during times of extreme tiredness so sufferers are encouraged to get sufficient rest.
Cognitive behaviour therapy is effective in identifying underlying causes of anxiety and encouraging changes in dealing with stressful situations. CBT is increasingly recommended as a way to help individuals resolve sleep disturbances and insomnia.
Sufferers of Exploding Head Syndrome may find that their symptoms ease when they are correctly diagnosed. The condition is a recognised Parasomnia and although symptoms usually lessen or stop over the years, it is important to encourage sufferers to get sufficient sleep and relaxation.
Apart from trying not to become too exhausted and stressed, it is important to learn how to relax before bedtime. Alcohol, caffeine, large meals and heavy exercise should be restricted during the evening. Smokers are advised to give up if possible, or at least restrict smoking in the hours before bed. A light snack, milky drink or herbal tea can help encourage drowsiness. Relaxation techniques and meditation can help deal with the disturbance and wakefulness. Discussing the problem and asking for support from a partner will help provide reassurance that the condition is not harmful.
Waking suddenly is not pleasant but by understanding the condition and seeking information and support, sufferers may be able to relax and fall back into a peaceful night’s sleep.