What Is Havana Syndrome? Facts About the Mysterious Illness

Havana Syndrome

What Is Havana Syndrome? Facts About the Mysterious Illness

Havana syndrome is a series of debilitating symptoms that first affected U.S. intelligence officers and embassy staffers stationed in Havana, Cuba, in late 2016. In the following year, American diplomats in different parts of the world reported similar symptoms.

Researchers investigating the condition have stated that Havana syndrome, which was initially dismissed as mass hysteria or a reaction caused by psychosomatic causes such as stress, may be a result of microwave weaponry.

Symptoms are similar to those of a concussion or mild head injury and have mostly been reported by diplomats, intelligence officers, military personnel, and their family members deployed on foreign soil.

To date, Havana syndrome has affected more than 130 people, with a few officials having reported symptoms while they were on U.S soil. Symptoms are not only distressing but aftereffects also seem to linger for a long time.

what is Havana syndrome

What is Havana syndrome? Learn about the symptoms, potential causes, and treatment of this mysterious illness

What are the symptoms of Havana syndrome?


In late 2016, deployed diplomats heard a loud piercing sound at night and felt intense pressure in the face. Pain, nausea, and dizziness followed. While the sound stopped eventually, some people complained of continued pain and dizziness along with trouble concentrating.

The symptoms were debilitating enough to interfere with their work during the period of deployment.

In the years that followed, many intelligence officers and military personnel reported symptoms such as confusion, nausea, and disorientation that typically started with a sudden onset of pain and pressure in the head and ears. They reported other symptoms such as difficulty concentrating, brain fog, memory problems, light sensitivity, and sleep-related complaints (drowsiness and insomnia).

The long-term sequelae of Havana syndrome include:

  • Migraine
  • Problems with distant vision
  • Squinting
  • Recurrent vertigo
  • Nosebleeds

Experts state that overall symptoms are akin to those reported by individuals with head injuries, although none of the personnel reported a blow to the head or related preexisting health conditions.

What could be the cause of Havana syndrome?

Initially, experts suspected that Havana syndrome may be caused by either accidental or deliberate exposure to a toxic chemical, pesticide, or drug. No traces of such agents, however, were found in affected people or their homes.

The most likely cause of Havana syndrome is assumed to be some type of a mechanical device that emits ultrasonic or microwave energy:

    • Such radiofrequency energy exposure through highly specialized bioweaponry could potentially create microbubbles in the fluid inside a person’s ear. When those bubbles travel through the blood into the brain, they can cause minute air emboli that result in cell damage, similar to decompression sickness (disorder that deep-sea divers develop if they surface too quickly),
  • Another explanation is that symptoms may be due to direct penetration of radiofrequency waves into the skull, which disrupts electrical and chemical activity in the brain and rewires certain neural pathways. This rewiring may be the reason that the symptoms seem profound and have long-lasting sequelae.

Although debilitating, Havana syndrome is not fatal, and all afflicted individuals are still alive.

How is Havana syndrome treated?

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans of affected individuals compared with those of healthy individuals show differences in the white matter (the paler tissue of the brain and spinal cord that mainly contains bundles of myelinated nerve fibers) structure.

This supports the hypothesis that Havana syndrome is a disorder involving non-specific and unfathomable changes in brain activity and structure.

The management of the disease consists of alternative medicine modalities such as art therapy, meditation, breathing exercises, and acupuncture.

A rehabilitation program consisting of specific neurological exercises administered in 1-hour sessions has been partially successful but needs further research. Each session consists of cognitive exercises comprising repetitive complex movements of the upper and lower limbs, balance exercises, and orthoptic exercises.

What is the HAVANA Act?

On July 6, 2021, the U.S. Senate unanimously passed legislation to support American public servants who have incurred brain injuries from possible directed energy attacks or Havana syndrome, called the HAVANA (Helping American Victims Afflicted by Neurological Attacks) Act.

The Act, which was authorized by Senator Susan Collins along with the Intelligence Committee, plans to lend financial support to individuals who have suffered from Havana syndrome. Both the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and State Department will create regulations detailing fair and equitable criteria for paying the victims.

The HAVANA Act is an endeavor by the U.S. government to acknowledge the hardships of afflicted U.S. public officers, providing financial aid and legislative changes to help cope with the condition.

Pain: Why Does My Head Ache?

why does my head ache s1 blurry vision

Your Vision’s Blurry

You may get a headache when you try to focus on something near your face. If you’re farsighted, things look fuzzy as you get closer to them. It could be because your eyeball is too short or the clear covering on your eye, called the cornea, is too flat.

You might be born with it, but it starts to happen to most folks after age 40. Your doctor can help with eyeglasses, contact lenses, or surgery that corrects the shape of your cornea.

why does my head ache s2 tense neck shoulders

You Tense Your Neck and Shoulders

Do you hunch over your computer for hours or hold your phone to your ear with your shoulder? Or maybe stress makes you tense the muscles in your jaw. Any of these may cause “tension headaches.”

A hot shower, warming pad, and over-the-counter meds can help. Regular exercise along with meditation and other relaxation approaches might stop it before it starts.

why does my head ache s3 hungry

You’re Hungry

Maybe you haven’t had a meal in a while. It could give you low blood sugar, which triggers a headache. It might help to have several small meals instead of three big ones and keep healthy snacks like nuts or veggies on hand for emergencies.

why does my head ache s4 skipped morning coffee

You Skipped Your Morning Coffee

Your body gets used to the caffeine and reminds you with a throbbing head if you forget to drink your regular cup. When coffee isn’t at hand, green or black tea or even dark chocolate will do. If you want to quit your caffeine habit, don’t do it all at once. Cut down by about 25% a week to get used to it.

why does my head ache s5

You Had Sex

You may have a dull ache in your neck or head that worsens as you get more sexually excited. Or it might be a throbbing headache that arrives quickly just as you climax.

Some people feel both. Most last minutes, but it can be hours. It’s usually nothing to worry about, but tell your doctor right away if you get a headache during or after sex, especially if it never happened before or it’s sudden, which could be signs of something serious.

why does my head ache s6 swollen sinuses

Your Sinuses Are Swollen

A simple cold can inflame hollow areas behind your cheekbones and forehead. The swelling could cause pain there that worsens when you bend over.

It might be hard to breathe because mucus, which can get thick and yellow or green, doesn’t drain properly. Over-the-counter drugs can often help you manage it. There’s no need to call your doctor unless the symptoms are bad, don’t go away, or get worse.

why does my head ache s7 drank too much alcohol

You Drank Too Much Last Night

Today you pay with a hangover that includes a throbbing head. That’s because alcohol disturbs your sleep and rids your body of liquid. You may feel tired and nauseous, too. About five to eight drinks for men and three to five for women is enough to cause it.

Rehydrate with water, broth, or sports drinks. Anti-inflammatory drugs can help, but avoid acetaminophen, which is too hard on your liver when you’ve been drinking.

why does my head ache s8 ate ice cream

You Just Ate Ice Cream

Sometimes called an “ice cream headache” or “brain freeze,” it happens when you eat something very cold, especially if you do it fast.


Doctors aren’t sure what causes it, but it could be that the icy temperature makes the blood vessels in your mouth shrink, which triggers pain signals to your brain. It’s nothing to worry about and is usually gone in a minute or so. Prevention is simple: Eat frosty foods more slowly.

why does my head ache s9 head injury

You Hit Your Head

Headaches can start right away or months after an injury. They might be at the site of the blow or all over your skull and may get worse when you’re stressed. The cause isn’t always clear, but sometimes too much blood builds up in one spot.

This is called a hematoma. In serious cases, you may feel weak, confused, nauseous, and forgetful. See your doctor if you have any of these symptoms or if you have a headache after hitting your head.

why does my head ache s10 ear infection

You Have an Ear Infection

Bacteria or a virus may infect the air-filled middle ear, where tiny bones vibrate to make the sounds you hear. It usually happens fast. Fluid buildup could cause ear and head pain along with drainage of liquid, blood, or pus.

If you notice any of these symptoms, call your doctor, who will want to watch the infection and can help you manage pain and swelling. Most cases get better without treatment in 1-2 weeks.

why does my head ache s11 overdo pain medication

You Overdo Your Pain Relievers

Even common over-the-counter medications like aspirin, ibuprofen, and acetaminophen may cause headaches if you use them more than 15 days a month. Prescription opioids or drugs with caffeine might do it in just 10 days.

People who get migraines are more likely to have this problem. Your doctor can help you change your meds and give you other strategies to make you feel better.

why does my head ache s12 ate headache trigger

You Ate a Headache “Trigger”

Everyone is different, but foods that are more likely to cause a throbbing head include:

  • Aged cheese
  • Some fruits and nuts
  • Alcohol
  • Foods with nitrates, like hot dogs, sausage, or bacon
  • Fermented or pickled foods like sauerkraut or relish
  • A flavor enhancer called MSG

You can figure out your triggers if you track what and when you eat in a food journal and notice what leads to a headache.

why does my head ache s13 exercise workout

You Just Worked Out

You might hurt on both sides of your head while you exercise hard or after you’re done. Running, swimming, or weightlifting can bring it on. It’s usually nothing to worry about, but it’s best to check with your doctor to be sure it’s not something serious. Get medical help right away if you also throw up, pass out, or have double vision.

why does my head ache s14 wrong pillow

You’ve Got the Wrong Pillow

It may give you a headache if it puts your body in the wrong posture all night. And if you toss and turn, the lack of sleep might also lead to a pounding head.

Look for a pillow that keeps your head and neck in line with the rest of your body, as if you are standing up. Talk to your doctor or a physical therapist if you can’t get comfortable.

why does my head ache s15 when to call 911

When to Call 911

In rare cases, a headache might be a sign of something more serious. It could be a condition that develops slowly, such as a brain tumor. Or it could be a medical emergency, like a stroke. Call 911 if the pain is sudden and severe or you notice any of these symptoms along with it:

  • Numbness or weakness on one side of your face or body
  • Garbled speech or confusion
  • Trouble seeing
  • Dizziness, loss of balance

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