The Hypnic Jerk: Why We Twitch Before Falling Asleep

Have you ever found yourself falling asleep only to suddenly wake because your body twitches? Maybe it feels like a jerking contraction you can’t control, as if your body convulses all at once. If you’ve ever encountered this strange sensation, then you’ve experienced what’s referred to as a hypnic jerk.

Also known as hypnagogic jerks or sleep twitches, a hypnic jerk is an involuntary twitch that occurs as your body transitions from being awake to falling asleep. And though they may seem foreign in nature, research suggests that 60-70% of people experience sporadic hypnic jerks from time to time.

So what more do we know about the hypnic jerk, and what can we do to prevent it from occurring? Read on to learn everything there is to know about this strange, sleep-induced occurrence.

What Is a Hypnic Jerk?

Let’s start with a few of the basics. By definition, hypnic jerks (a.k.a. sleep starts, hypnagogic jerks, or myoclonic jerks) are nothing more than your body twitching as it falls asleep. Named for the transitional period between being fully awake and falling asleep, the hypnic jerk is a harmless condition experienced by many.

Believe it or not, a hypnic jerk is very similar in nature to a common hiccup. Both a hiccup and a hypnic jerk are considered an involuntary muscle twitch known as a myoclonus.

Hypnic Jerk Symptoms

Because a hypnic jerk isn’t a disorder, it’s important to note that any symptoms you may experience aren’t cause for concern. Instead these symptoms are simply things you might experience while transitioning into a state of sleep. They include:

  • Falling sensations
  • Sweating
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Jerking or rapid limb movements
  • ​Fast breathing
  • Dreams or hallucinations that lead to a startle

What Causes a Hypnic Jerk?

Hypnic jerk: A woman asleep in front of a camper van window

Now that we have a basic understanding of the hypnic jerk, let’s discuss what may cause it to occur. Unfortunately research hasn’t been able to pinpoint exactly why the hypnic jerk occurs because both healthy and unhealthy people experience it. That being said, theories do exist that offer plausible causes.

Sleep Deprivation

As is the case with so many sleep disorders, some believe the hypnic jerk occurs due to poor sleep habits or sleep disturbances. For this reason, it’s pertinent that you develop a healthy sleep routine by sticking to a strict schedule. Consider utilizing a sleep tracker to monitor your sleep patterns and gain a better understanding of your sleep.

Exercise

As we all know, exercising each day is important no matter your current state of health. That being said, some believe exercising before bed may cause your brain and muscles to remain active as you try to fall asleep. This may lead to side effects that include sweating, jerking, or wakefulness through the night.

Stress

Anxious thoughts and emotional stress can keep you tossing and turning at night when all you want to do is sleep. Because sleep is a healing period for both the mind and body, it’s quite possible that stress is causing your muscles to alert your body, even as it drifts off to sleep. Such alerts can occur in the form of twitches and jerks.

Stimulants

Nothing stops your body from falling asleep quite like stimulants do. Be it caffeine, nicotine, or any other stimulant, these substances can negatively impact your body’s ability to fall asleep and to reach deeper stages of sleep, like rapid eye movement (REM) sleep.

Evolution

Some research suggests the hypnic jerk is simply an evolutionary trait passed on to us by our ancestors from thousands of years ago. This may be the case when you consider that primitive humans slept in trees and, therefore, needed to ensure they wouldn’t wake up only after falling to the ground. The hypnic jerk may have once served us as an alert to readjust our sleeping positions while dozing in branches high above.

Who Experiences Hypnic Jerks?

While hypnic jerks can affect everyone, the American Academy of Sleep Medicine notes that adults are far more likely than children to experience hypnic jerks. The reason for this pertains to specific factors that affect adults rather than children, such as stimulant intake, emotional stress, and intense bouts of exercise. Hypnic jerks may still occur in children, but they are far less common.

Hypnic Jerk Treatments

Hypnic jerk: A person meditating

Because the hypnic jerk isn’t considered uncommon or unhealthy, treatment instead focuses on preventing the sleep start from happening in the first place. Follow the steps below that aim to help you fall asleep and stay asleep.

  • Practice Good Sleep Hygiene: Sleep hygiene is nothing more than a fancy term for healthy sleeping habits. This means that in order to sleep better, you first need to provide your body with a few basic requirements. These include exercising regularly, limiting daytime naps, avoiding bedtime snacks, and steering clear of stimulants that can keep you awake.
  • Avoid Stimulants: Stimulants act as powerful shots of energy that flood your brain and keep you going. As enticing as that may sound at two o’clock in the afternoon when you grow drowsy, it does no good for your brain later in the night. Avoid caffeine, nicotine, alcohol, or other stimulants beyond midday, as these are likely to keep you from sleeping through the night. And remember that while alcohol or wine may make you drowsy before bed, chances are they’ll disrupt your sleep later in the night.
  • Exercise Appropriately: While some of us enjoy being productive at night rather than during the day, do your best to complete any exercise sessions before noon. And if this isn’t possible, focus on low-intensity exercise in the evening that won’t keep your heart racing into the night.
  • Breathing Exercises: Breathing exercises are a common yet effective means of slowing your heart rate and getting a good night’s sleep. Consider utilizing a breathing technique known as “box breathing” that’s taught to Navy SEALS. This technique aims to slow your heart rate and reduce stress by performing a specific breathing cycle for a short period of time.
  • Sleep Medicine: Although sleep medicine isn’t recommended as a means of combating the hypnic jerk, it can be used if you suffer from a more serious sleep disorder that’s accompanied by the hypnic jerk. For instance, some individuals experience sleep paralysis that may in-turn cause parkinsonism, or ” any condition that causes a combination of the movement abnormalities seen in Parkinson’s disease.”

As unusual as the hypnic jerk may seem, following these simple guidelines will reduce the likelihood that hypnic jerks will disrupt your slumber. If your experience with hypnic jerks doesn’t improve after adopting these treatment options, consider talking with a licensed health clinician to discuss your options.

Living With Hypnic Jerks

While the hypnic jerk may come across as an unhealthy or unnatural occurrence, in truth, it’s a completely normal experience that many of us know well. That being said, if your experience with hypnic jerks has you concerned or is keeping you awake, don’t be afraid to speak with your doctor or a licensed healthcare provider to discuss your treatment options.

If you find yourself experiencing hypnic jerks regularly, consider making an appointment with your doctor as this may be a symptom of poor sleep patterns or stressors. At the end of the day, remember that hypnagogic jerks aren’t uncommon, nor are they a disorder. Take some time to relax before bed, treat your body well, and you will reduce the likelihood that you’ll wake due to an unforeseen twitch.

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