Day 541: When Heads Explode

originally published June 24, 2013

I just discovered that I suffer from the most awesome disease in the world.

It’s not really a disease so much as an ‘ailment of unknown etiology’. I chanced upon this little corner of Wikipedian knowledge when I was researching last week’s article on Dancing Mania; I felt there must be another article among the myriad of unexplained medical weirdness in the world, perhaps one that isn’t too depressing to read about.

Then I saw the article for Exploding Head Syndrome. My imagination spun into action – I pictured an African woman bringing water to her tribe, a Tibetan Sherpa scaling a precarious mountainside, a Tokyo executive heading back to the office after lunch, when suddenly… BOOM!

How could I have not known about this phenomenon?

And then I read beyond the title, only to discover that I actually have this. Not to worry, it isn’t as dramatic and messy as the gruesome little movies in my mind. It’s more of a hypnagogic auditory hallucination, one that some researcher felt deserved a misleading and dramatic name for the medical textbooks. Here’s what happens.

I’m lying in bed, the monolith of impending sleep casting a murky shadow over most of my brain, right on the cusp of tumbling into my first angsty dream about missed school assignments and hovering grapes who accuse me of stealing their pith helmets, when suddenly I hear a single loud bang inside my head. Quite often this is accompanied by a flash of white light on the insides of my eyelids. It happens every few months, and it’s so inconsequential I usually forget about the whole thing by morning.

But now it’s going to stick. Now I’ll jolt back awake, secure in the knowledge that, medically speaking, my head just exploded.

Incidents of Exploding Head Syndrome are labeled as ‘attacks’, though given the absence of pain or really any negative consequences, I find this to be a slight overreaction. Some people report feelings of fear and/or anxiety before and after an internal cranial blast, but I can’t say I’ve felt either. It has also been reported that stress or fatigue may be linked with explosion incidents. I’ve never kept track, but I don’t think that’s the case with me. Sometimes it just happens – I’ve been told I possess an armada of sleep-related quirks, and I assume my head exploding is just one of them.

One suggestion for the origin of these blasts is a sudden movement of the Eustachian tube that connects the ear with the nose and throat. Another thought is that it’s simply a minor, non-traumatic seizure of the temporal lobe where the hearing cells are located. Neither of these explanations are satisfactory to me. I’d like to think when it happens I have just successfully repelled a psychic attack by one of my enemies. Or perhaps it’s simply my being tuned in to the Force, and I’m recognizing that a million voices had suddenly cried out in terror and were suddenly silenced somewhere.

It’s not always a loud bang ringing out in that twisted space between my ears though, sometimes it’s a loud tone, a door slam, or an electrical zap. Some people hear voices – that might set me into a weirded-out state. The only common side effect is a little burst of adrenaline. Lesser seen side effects include increased heavy breathing, loss of appetite and increased laughter. Now that’s a side effect I could get behind.

Another bout of nighttime strangeness I sometimes encounter is the Hypnic Jerk. I think everyone gets these every so often – if you don’t, then I feel bad for you. It’s almost like a dream, but it occurs before REM sleep hands the cast of your dreams their final scripts and shoos them onto the stage. Right as you’re falling asleep, in that sacred moment when the mind’s waters become their most purely tranquil, you may experience a sudden jolt, as though you’ve been falling toward earth, springing awake just before you land.

That’s a Hypnic Jerk.

These occur for a number of possible reasons, including stress, caffeine, anxiety, or actually falling into a large pit just as you’re about to doze off. It’s nothing more than an abrupt flexing of muscle, which sends a jolt of misinformation to your brain, making you feel as though you just did a reverse pike off the side of the Chrysler Building. These won’t cause you any harm, but they may be a sign that your sleep cycle is too irregular.

Of course the real win is when you find an unexplainable ailment that doesn’t cause too much intrusion on your life, but will still enable you to miss a few days of work. I highly doubt I could call my boss and tell him I can’t make it in because my head exploded last night. Maybe I could make a case for Sick Building Syndrome.

With no real cause, people who spend an inordinate amount of time inside office buildings can develop a number of symptoms. These could include irritated eyes, noses or throats, skin rashes and unusual odor or taste sensations. This is quite often a ventilation problem – you’ll find it among office drones in older buildings, before the Green movement kicked in and started pumping fresh air into previously stale cubicles.

This is more than people in dreary desk jobs complaining about their lives – the World Health Organization determined in 1986 that 10-30% of newly built office buildings in western society had indoor air concerns. Given that my city has built all of two or three major office buildings constructed since that period, there’s a good chance a lot of people in our downtown core are dealing with this.

Most of the items on the big list of ailments with unknown causes are more dreary and serious than this, however. The list includes a grim menu of medical horrors, like Alzheimer’s Disease, Irritable Bowel Syndrome, Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, Bell’s Palsy and something called Brainerd Diarrhea.

Ick. I’ll stick with having my head explode, thanks.

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