How Exploding Head Syndrome Works

What are the chances your head will explode?

Exploding head syndrome was first described in a few medical case studies by a doctor named Silas Weir Mitchell in 1876 [source: Thomson]. The name of the disorder was not coined until much later by J.M.S. Pierce in 1988, but Mitchell described the symptoms as "sensory discharges" and they were later described in a clinical journal in 1920 as a "snapping of the brain" [source: Sharpless]. Nice descriptions, but J.M.S. Pierce definitely wins the prize for creativity in naming.

There have been varying reports of how much of the population experiences exploding head syndrome. A 2015 study of 211 students showed that 18 percent had experienced the sensation [source: Thomson]. This number is likely inflated, however. Sleep experts believe that people who are more sleep deprived tend to have exploding head, and students typically don't get as much sleep as others. A more conservative estimate states that close to 11 percent of healthy people have had to deal with the syndrome, with women at a higher risk than men [source: Mitchell].


The average age of onset is in the 50s, although it has been reported to have occurred in someone as young as 10 years old [sources: Mitchell, Sleep Education]. Psychiatric patients tend to experience exploding head syndrome a bit more, with 13.8 percent of them reporting that they have experienced the symptoms of the disorder [source: Tanchanco].

In addition to the terror of loud noises, exploding head syndrome can cause a few other symptoms in patients. Many report palpitations or tachycardia — the feeling that their heart is beating too hard or fast or skipping a beat. Some have even described an aura of electrical sensation – like a shock – that travels from their lower torso to their head while they are experiencing an episode. Quite a shocking way – literally – to be woken from sleep.

So, what causes it?