Nearly one in five college students may suffer from “exploding head syndrome,” a psychological condition in which people are abruptly awakened from sleep by imaginary loud noises or blasts.

That’s according to Washington State University researchers who have conducted the largest study yet of the sleep disorder, previously believed to be rare.

If you’ve never heard of “exploding head syndrome,” or EHS, don’t worry. Neither have most doctors, said Brian Sharpless, the WSU assistant professor of psychology who led the study published recently in the Journal of Sleep Research.

“You’re going to sleep and become relaxed. Then, all of a sudden, you hear an extremely loud noise, or gunshots, or the sound of extremely large guitar strings breaking,” said Sharpless, who is also director of the university’s psychology clinic. “Some people feel like there’s an explosion inside their heads.”

The disorder, which is noted in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM V, was first recognized about 130 years ago, when it was characterized as “sensory discharges,” and later, when it was described as “snapping of the brain.” In 1988, neurologist Dr. J.M.S. Pearce coined the colorful modern phrase.

Previously, EHS was believed to be rare, and to be more common in people older than 50. But Sharpless and his colleagues found that about 18 percent of the 211 undergraduate college students they interviewed had experienced the problem at least once in their lives. Some had experienced it several times in one night, Sharpless said.

The condition isn’t harmful, but it can be frightening — and may make sufferers wonder if they’re experiencing a legitimate medical or psychological problem.

“People don’t report it that much because they’re embarrassed or they think they might be going crazy,” he said.

No one knows for sure what causes EHS, but researchers suspect it stems from problems with the brain’s process of turning off for sleep. Instead of shutting down properly, the auditory neurons are believed to fire all at once, causing the imaginary sounds.

More than one-third of people with EHS also experienced isolated sleep paralysis, a scary condition in which a person wakes up unable to move or speak, sometimes for several minutes at a time.

Experts with the American Sleep Association say that EHS may be linked to high stress and extreme fatigue, though similar conditions can be caused by certain medications. ASA indicated that the disorder was more common in women than in men, but Sharpless’ new research didn’t find that pattern.

Neither EHS nor sleep paralysis has a well-defined treatment, though different drugs, including antidepressants, have been tried, said Sharpless, who is co-author of a forthcoming book: “Sleep Paralysis: Historical, Psychological and Medical Perspectives.”

People who think they have EHS should consult a doctor for a diagnosis — and to rule out any other problems, Sharpless said. But for some, it’s enough to know that others suffer from the odd ailment, too.

“That’s kind of good,” he said. “People don’t feel so strange or so scared.”


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