Handstand Exploding Head Syndrome

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Watermelon Smash

It’s amazing how people let fear get in the way of hitting lifelong goals.  So many people let fear take control when they try to learn the handstand.

At least once a week, someone sends me an email asking for advice because handstands make them feel like their head is going to explode:

“As soon as I get close to vertical, my head felt like it was going to explode.”

“I get redness in my face for quite a while after handstands.”

“My eyes feel like they are about to burst!”

“I don’t mind holding the handstand, but the pressure on my head is unbearable!”

I get emails like this so frequently that I started calling it Exploding Head Syndrome.  Recently, I received an email from someone who actually removed the handstand from their workouts all together because of Exploding Head Syndrome!!

Exploding Head Syndrome Email

Sure, some people don’t have this problem at all, but many people DO.  Just because you are the only one you know who has this problem doesn’t make you any less capable to perform the handstand.

But how many people experience this and don’t reach out to me for help?  How many people feel the pain, and just figure it’s easier to put the handstand aside?

How many people try their first wall handstand, experience Exploding Head Syndrome, and give up?

I haven’t pin pointed the percentage of people who suffer from this problem and never try to fix it.  But I do know how many people have taken the 28-Day Handstand Challenge, and I know that people who complete the challenge always see progress towards their first handstand.  Yet, so many people don’t finish the challenge. They fall off the wagon somewhere — and I bet Exploding Head Syndrome is to blame in many of those cases.

If you experience this problem and you stop training, you are just letting fear get the best of you  :

Fear that you may not be ready for the handstand.
Fear that your body is not capable of being inverted.
Fear that continued practice will mean more pain, instead of more reward.
Fear that you will be wasting time on something that you can never perform.

This is unfortunate, because Exploding Head Syndrome is SO COMMON and SO EASY TO OVERCOME

Understanding Exploding Head Syndrome

Lego Stretcher

When you go into a handstand, its like turning a water bottle upside-down.  WHOOSH!  All of the blood in your body rushes to your head, and expands the blood vessels throughout, including those in your brain and eyes.  Imagine filling a water balloon, and how it swells as more water flows into it.  Yup, the same thing is happening in every blood vessel in your entire head.

But…when you get out of bed in the morning, all of the blood rushes to your feet.  WHOOSH!  So why don’t your feet feel like they are going to explode every time you stand up?!

Well, your body is supposed to know how to adjust to the stress of changing blood pressures as you move around.  When the blood rushes to your feet, your blood vessels sense the change in pressure, and they relax or stiffen based on the blood pressure that is ideal for your feet.  Since you usually stand upright, your blood vessels are well trained to adjust for the sudden rush of blood, and you don’t even notice a difference.

You’re not used to standing on your hands, though…so once you get inverted, the blood rushes to your head and your body literally doesn’t know how to cope!  The entire system that deals with blood pressure in the head is simply not trained for that situation.

If you want to overcome Exploding Head Syndrome, you need to gradually train your body to deal with the increased pressure.

But before going any further, there is a minority of new hand balancers where Exploding Head Syndrome may indicate a medical problem such as high blood pressure, low blood pressure, infection or even something more sinister…

For example, if you have problems with your blood pressure then your body is generally not coping well to changes in your circulation.  Your body may not be able to adjust to blood rushing to your head, no matter what.

Now, I don’t run into many people like this…in fact, the number of people I have worked with who have had serious medical problems is under 10%.  Most times, Exploding Head Syndrome is pretty benign…

But if you do suffer from Exploding Head Syndrome, you should probably check with your doctor first before continuing your handstand training.  If you do have a medical problem, it can lead to a bunch of horrible symptoms including headaches and burst capillaries in the eyes, among other things.

A quick visit to the doctor, where you get cleared for handstand training can save you a lot of time, frustration and headaches (literally!).  And, in some rare cases, it may also uncover something that needs medical attention.  And once you get that sorted out, you can start working on overcoming Exploding Head Syndrome.

Overcoming Exploding Head Syndrome

Watermelon Bandage

If you made it this far, then you checked that you’re cleared to do handstands, right?  So, you don’t need to worry about medical complications? Great!  You’re ready to work past this problem.

Good news! It usually only takes 7-14 days to eliminate Exploding Head Syndrome.

Remember to Breathe

The first thing you need to do is remember to breathe.  I know, I know, it sounds stupid…but it’s normal to hold your breath when you are straining yourself.  When you are really trying to hold yourself up, you tend to tighten the muscles in your trunk and hold your breath.  This is called the Valsalva maneuver  and is actually really useful when you are trying to do something like push your car down the road, or deadlift a tree.

We evolved to perform the Valsalva maneuver instinctively because it locks the truck in place, stabilizes the Lumbar spine and provides stability to the shoulder girdle.  This is great in most situations, but it works against you when you are learning to handstand.

For starters, the Valsalva maneuver temporarily increases your heart rate, so more blood is being pumped out of your heart and into your head…right to the last place you want it.  As if that weren’t bad enough, holding your breath increases the pressure in your trunk, which makes it harder for blood to leave your head.

In short, you need to force yourself to breathe steadily!  When you are first getting over the Exploding Head Syndrome, you can use a technique to make sure you are breathing.  You can count out loud.  You can recite your alphabet.  These techniques force you to pay attention to your breathing.

I can hear you cry out, “Wait!  Those guys in Cirque don’t seem to be paying so much attention to their breathing!” and you’re right.  As your handstands improve, you will be able to breathe normally, but you need to get over this initial hump first.

Gradually Increase the Pressure

If controlling your breathing doesn’t provide the relief you need, then you need to build up to the increased pressure slowwwwllly…

If you are taking the 28-Day Handstand Challenge (or using my book), the technique for overcoming Exploding Head Syndrome slips right into your daily 5-minute routine (Not taking the challenge? Working on your handstand?  You may want to sign up to get all of my free handstand material.)


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Build a handstand commitment to eliminate Exploding Head Syndrome.

Start by going into your best belly-to-wall handstand hold, and get to the point where you start to feel the pressure building up, where you start to feel uncomfortable.  Then, walk your hands a step or two away from the wall, bringing your hips down and reducing the pressure.  You should still be uncomfortable, but it shouldn’t be unbearable.

In the next session, try to get a little closer.  The next time, get closer.  And the time after that?  Yup, get closer.  Even if it’s just a centimeter each time.  Eventually, the discomfort will subside, and you will be able to tolerate being inverted.

This technique gradually introduces your blood vessels to the stress of increased blood flow to the head.  And, as your body gets used to it, it will learn how to adjust each and every time.

The only caveat here is that you need to be consistent, and train this daily…anything less just won’t cut it.  Luckily, you have the habit-building and commitment-strengthening techniques of the 28-Day Handstand Challenge to help keep you consistent.

A small “problem” with this technique is that it can be frustrating if you are already pretty strong, if your arms are strong enough to hold yourself upside-down near the wall.  You feel that holding wall planks (instead of wall handstands) is too elementary for someone of your strength…but you need to get past that.  The only way to get over this problem is to reprogram your body to be able to do handstands, and this method is the only way to do it.

Now…Do It!

Thumbs Up

You need to be consistent, and you need to just get out and do it.

Just like your normal handstand training, you need to work on this very frequently.  Your body needs a lot of exposure to being inverted.  That is the only way it can adjust to the increased pressure.

This method works in a vast majority of cases, and normally takes between 7-14 days until most of the pain disappears.  Sometimes it takes a bit longer (6 weeks or more) if you are an outlier or have a medical complication…

…but is two weeks (or even 6 weeks) really that long?  After all, you are trying to reprogram a major biological system in your body!  You’re trying to overcome a major obstacle towards an uber-impressive, lifelong goal!  A few weeks is nothing, in the scheme of things.

So just go out and do it.  If you are taking the 28-Day Handstand Challenge, or using my book, then you need to just remember this technique as you go through Challenges #1 and #2.  If you are reading this because you want to hit your first freestanding hold, then you should start the 28-Day Handstand Challenge to build the habit and consistency that are necessary to overcome this obstacle.

Now just get out there and train!

photo source: watermelon smash, stretcher, thumbs-up

5 Responses to “Handstand Exploding Head Syndrome”

  1. Amit May 27, 2015 at 1:17 am #

    I have one query. When i do handstand(approx 1 min or less) i don’t feel much problem. But afterwords whole day i feel heaviness in my head. Am i doing soomething wrong or it is just normal course.

  2. harsh June 22, 2015 at 10:00 am #

    thank you,
    I had this head burst problem sometimes and some time not
    finally you pointed where I was wrong I wasn’t breathing and then I used to have a heavy head for an hour now the rush ain’t unbearable 🙂
    thank you

  3. Karen Whyte July 2, 2016 at 5:43 pm #

    Hello, Mr. Salvato. I wonder if you are used to working with older people at all? Because I always could do at least a headstand (if not a handstand) with no problem, as well as a handstand against a wall. But now all of a sudden my head can’t tolerate the feeling! Not only is everything rushing into my head so that the pressure is too uncomfortable to bear, but my nose gets so clogged up I can’t even breathe out of it! Every fluid in my body is going up (I mean down) there; my vessels must have lost a lot of elasticity in the past year. (Blood pressure’s normal.) Well,I will try your gradual method and see if it works: it gives me hope! Because I find it very useful to be upside-down sometimes. But maybe there are too many issues in an older person. – I always wanted to be able to do a handstand and never thought I could, but a yoga teacher said I could build up my strength with planks. I hope I haven’t waited til its too late.

  4. Art August 11, 2016 at 3:13 am #

    I normally wouldn’t say anything but seriously dude…fear? Are you serious? These people could have serious medical issues like sinus related pressure from blood flow inverted. This is a common problem. You have a good site. Don’t fudge it up with snake oil fear-less tactics.

    • Chris Salvato November 3, 2016 at 1:00 pm #

      Hi Art! I agree, if you suffer from this problem you should see a doctor, which is why I made this recommendation:

      But if you do suffer from Exploding Head Syndrome, you should probably check with your doctor first before continuing your handstand training. If you do have a medical problem, it can lead to a bunch of horrible symptoms including headaches and burst capillaries in the eyes, among other things.

      A quick visit to the doctor, where you get cleared for handstand training can save you a lot of time, frustration and headaches (literally!). And, in some rare cases, it may also uncover something that needs medical attention. And once you get that sorted out, you can start working on overcoming Exploding Head Syndrome.