This Upsetting Sleep Phenomenon Is Very Real -- And Very Mysterious

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Comstock via Getty Images
Comstock via Getty Images

Very little is known about one of the more troublingly named sleep disorders: exploding head syndrome.

Despite the name, this phenomenon is usually harmless -- although it can certainly be disruptive to sleep. People who experience exploding head syndrome typically hear a loud bang sound like cymbals crashing, a bomb exploding or a gunshot when no such noise has actually occurred.

A new review of the existing research on exploding head syndrome, published in the journal Sleep Medicine Reviews, highlights just how overlooked this condition truly is. At this time, there's little scientific evidence to support accurate prevalence rates, diagnostic measures and even treatment plans, according to the review.

"In layman's terms, our best guess is that it occurs when the body doesn't shut down for sleep in the correct sequence," researcher Brian Sharpless, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychology and director of the Psychology Clinic at Washington State University, said in a statement. "Instead of shutting down, certain groups of neurons actually get activated and have us perceive the bursts of noise. Behavioral and psychological factors come into play as well, and if you have normally disrupted sleep, the episodes will be more likely to occur."

Sharpless tells HuffPost Healthy Living in an email that he's handled about 40 cases of exploding head syndrome in his ongoing study of the condition. It's typically thought to be related to stress and extreme fatigue and is more common in women than men and in people over 50, although it has been reported in children as young as 10, according to the American Sleep Association.

"[P]eople are negatively impacted by episodes, and it can significantly affect their lives," he writes to Healthy Living. "For some people, EHS leads to anxiety, sleep disruption, daytime sleepiness and a fear that they may be 'going crazy.' Unfortunately, for these likely small number of individuals, a lack of awareness in the various health fields may lead to costly assessments, misdiagnosis and unnecessary worry that these patients may be suffering from a more serious condition."

In the review, Sharpless encourages additional research into exploding head syndrome. In the meantime, "education and reassurance may themselves be effective treatments," he writes in his review. The understandable anxiety and fear created by the loud noises may increase stress surrounding bedtime in people with exploding head syndrome, so relaxation techniques and greater awareness may help. "It's important to get the word out about the real nature of EHS," he tells HuffPost.

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