Exploding head syndrome

Once you attach the word “syndrome” to anything the implications just cannot be good. You need look no further than the word China to see this to be true. On its own China refers to a country rich in history and culture with diverse geography. Add syndrome to it though and you find yourself with a “China Syndrome” which is a pretty dire state of affairs. The syndrome phenomenon is never more clearly seen than in medicine. There is Gourmand Syndrome, Fish Odour Syndrome, Foreign Accent Syndrome, and now you can add to that “Exploding Head Syndrome” (although it has to be said that “exploding head” sounds relatively malevolent even without the syndrome appellation).

Before coming to the Exploding Head variety, in case you are distracted by curiosity as to what these other syndromes might be, here is a brief expose on each.

Gourmand Syndrome was identified in a 1997 article in the journal Neurology and features a preoccupation with food and a preference for fine eating. It corresponds with lesions in the right anterior part of the brain involving cortex, basal ganglia, or limbic structures. If current program schedules are anything to go by it appears that this syndrome might be rife among television executives.

Fish Odour Syndrome is the colloquial name for “Trimethylaminuria”. This is a genetic disorder that causes a strong body odour usually described as like rotting fish, faeces or garbage. The odour is created when the body is not able to break down trimethylamine so it builds up in the body and produces a strong odour in the sweat, urine and breath. There are usually no other symptoms but it can be understandably distressing for the sufferer.

Foreign Accent Syndrome is a real phenomenon that is most often caused by damage to the brain caused by a stroke or traumatic brain injury. Speech may be altered in terms of timing, intonation, and tongue placement so that it is perceived as sounding foreign. Vowels are particularly susceptible as which vowel you say depends on where your tongue is in your mouth. While the speech change may not actually exactly mimic a foreign accent the change is significant and listeners usually approximate what they hear to some other accent.

Now to Exploding Head Syndrome.

The new information on this topic comes from a Washington State University researcher who has reviewed the literature on the condition. Exploding Head Syndrome affects people as they are falling asleep. People with the syndrome will perceive abrupt loud noises like doors slamming, or gunshots just as they drop off to sleep or are waking up. In some people there is mild pain and some hear the sounds only in one ear while others hear it in both.

Exactly how many people suffer from Exploding Head Syndrome is not yet established but the term dates back to a 1988 article in the Lancet where it was also referred to as “snapping of the brain”. The theory at the moment is that when people with this syndrome go to sleep the body does not shut down in the correct sequence resulting in some groups of neurons being activated causing the perception of a loud noise.

It seems that the condition is probably more common in women than men. There is not an established treatment as yet but the value in this new article lies in the peace of mind that it offers. While conventional treatment is limited, the condition is not dangerous, even if it is unsettling and can lead to sleeplessness. Perhaps just knowing that the “syndrome” is not representing deeper problems, and that they are not alone in suffering it, can be the start of healing for some people.

Terry Robson

Terry Robson

Terry Robson is the Editor-in-Chief of WellBeing and the Editor of EatWell.

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