A Fifth of College Students May Have ‘Exploding Head Syndrome’

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A young woman peeking out from under her ned sheet with a frightened expression.
Photo: 13/PeopleImages.com/Corbis

Last May, Melissa spoke with a guy who has “exploding head syndrome” — a strange and little-understood condition in which sufferers hallucinate sudden, loud noises when they’re falling asleep or waking up. “[I]t sounded to me like someone literally put a hand grenade in the wood stove that’s in my living room, and it just blew up,” he told her, describing the first time he experienced EHS. “I mean, I hit the deck.”

Brian A. Sharpless, a psychologist at Washington State University, wanted to find out more about why some people suffer from this odd condition, so he assessed 211 college students for EHS and for sleep paralysis, which appears to have some connection to EHS (though researchers aren’t sure why). The results are published in a new article that appears in the Journal of Sleep Research.

Before this study, researchers thought that EHS had “a typical age of onset of over 50 years… and [is] more common in females,” but hadn’t done the sorts of large studies needed to test these ideas. Sharpless’s study, while by no means huge, seems to run counter to both these ideas — almost a fifth of the college students in the study (18 percent) had experienced an episode of EHS at least once, and there was no statistically significant difference between the prevalence in men as compared to women.

Sharpless did, however, find the expected correlation with sleep paralysis: among students who had experienced an episode of sleep paralysis, 37 percent percent had also experienced EHS. And for a small, unfortunate slice of the sample, EHS “was reported to be a significant problem in their life.” At the moment, these folks are pretty much out of luck, since the condition — and possible treatment options — remains such a mystery, but at least researchers are starting to get a better sense of who’s most affected.