What Are Hypnic Jerks? – Reasons Why You Twitch At Night

Have you ever lied in your bed just about falling to sleep after a long day when all of a sudden you are woken up by a strong muscle twitch?

It could feel as though that your arm, leg or other body parts just twitched on their own. Maybe your heart is racing at the same time.

It can also be the case that you woke up feeling as though you are either floating or falling. You might also be hearing loud noises and seeing bright lights.

What are hypnic jerks?
Experienced a falling feeling?

Your partner could also be doing this very same action at night and their erratic movements could be disrupting your sleep. If any of these things have happened to you before, then there is a good chance that you or your partner have just experienced an episode of hypnic jerks.

In this post, we will answer that all important question:

What are hypnic jerks?

We will also be exploring the symptoms, causes, treatment options and other interesting facts about sleep disorder. Let us discover more about this phenomenon that involves uncontrolled muscle jolts.

What Are Hypnic Jerks?

This video created by BrainStuff provides a brief summary about hypnic jerks:

Hypnic jerks goes by many names such as hypnagogic jerks, myoclonus jerks, sleep starts, night starts or sleep twitches. These are involuntary muscle twitches that happen in your arms, legs or your entire body when you going to sleep at night.

Think of hypnic jerks in the same way as if somebody was trying to surprise you from behind and you jump or jolt as a result. The jumping or jolting movement happened on its own without your control.

These movements happen very suddenly and will typically leave you feeling disrupted and alert for some time after the actual jerk happened.

There are some individuals that will violently act out or move their extremities when they are experiencing a hypnic jerk episode. Others will simply either jolt or have small muscle twitches.

This video will show hypnic jerks in action:

In some cases, the hypnic jerks can be joined a noise such as a scream or yell as your body reacts to the rough nature of chronic hypnic jerks.

This affects everybody differently there are some that only have small movements and experience only one to two occurences every night prior to going to sleep.

However, there are others where the case is more severe in that they are jolted awake from that point that they were just about to go to sleep every night.

How Common Are Hypnic Jerks?

According to Dr. Mercola, up to 70% of people experience hypnic jerks at some point in their lives.

I have experienced hypnic jerks before and to this day as well. There were days that I can recall when I woke from a sudden  jolting movement. It felt as though my torso moved upright on its own.

I woke up in the same way when you realize that you woke up and that you are late for work or school. (You know what I am talking about)

I took a look around and wondered if somebody woke me up in middle of the night.

My response was “There is nobody here. Why did that just happen?”

I also occassionaly have some muscle twitches where my jaw closes on its own.

Do not be alarmed if this happens, hypnic jerks are a common occurrence.

I know that there are many other people out there that experience this as well.

Symptoms

The newest edition of the International Classification Of Sleep Disorders describes hypnic jerks as:

“Sleep starts, also known as hypnic jerks, are sudden, brief, simultaneous contractions of the body or one or more body segments occuring at sleep onset. Sleep starts (or hypnic jerks) usually consist of a single contraction that often affects the body asymmetrically. The jerks may be spontaneous or induced by stimuli.”

The interesting thing about their description is that hypnic jerks often affects the body asymmetrically. That would explain why it would feel as though only one of your extremities would jolt at a time.

The jerks can happen independently from one another or in response to other stimuli present in the bedroom that would include any external sounds or the movement of your partner.

In addition to muscle twitches or jolts, these are the other symptoms:

  1. Hallucinations.
  2. Seeing flashing lights.
  3. Hearing unexpected loud noises such as explosions. Another sleep disorder where this happens is Exploding Head Syndrome.
  4. Feeling pain or tingling.
  5. The sensation of falling.
  6. The sensation of floating.
  7. Increased heart rate.
  8. Faster breathing.
  9. Sweating.

Hot air ballon in the sky over sea.

Causes

There are many theories as to what causes hypnic jerks, yet nobody has discovered the answer to this issue.

The American Academy Of Sleep Medicine has examined this issue and scientists have thought up a wide assortment of causes that include alcohol consumption, exercising close to your scheduled bedtime and anxiety.

Anecdotal Link

The first theory suggests is that there is an anecdotal link. The truth is that people with poor sleep habits do suffer from these. These links can randomly occur in otherwise normal people who get enough sleep everyday.

The second theory suggests that the cause for the falling feeling that accompanies hypnic jerks is that the brain does not understand what is happening.

As you lie down to go to sleep your muscles relax and your brain sometimes misintreprets the muscle relaxation for the fact that you body is really falling.

When this happens your brain gets scared and transmits signals to your muscles to be alert and to hold on! That is the hypnic jerk you feel as a result.

Response To Hallucinations

The third theory suggests that hypnic jerks happen as an answer to sleep hallucinations or at the beginning of dreams.

This would elaborate on why some people have different sensations other than the muscle twitching.

Evolution

The final theory is a very intriguing one and it suggests that we experience hypnic jerks due to evolution. Modern day humans are descended from primates. The hypnic jerk could have assisted our ancestors to maintain their grip on trees.

The brain misintreptres the muscle relaxation for falling from a high point. This unusual brain conditioning must have remained with us even though we have evolved millions of years after that time.

An additional explanation for the feeling is that your brain is jolting you awake so that you can observe if the surroundings are safe or not. This was most likely a safety mechanism that our ancestors had in order to keep them safe from other large predators.

However, we have evolved since those times. Hypnic jerks are now just a nuisance to a modern person that is trying to get a good night’s sleep. How true is that statement?

It could very well be that you relate to some or all of these causes. However, these movements are involuntary even if you sleep properly, lower stress, avoid alcohol and caffeine consumption.

Other Factors

Along with the theories in the section above, there are other factors that can cause hypnic jerks such as:

  1. Exhaustion or sleep depravation.
  2. Sleeping in an unusually uncomfortable position.
  3. Physical exercise later in the day.
  4. Stress or anxiety.
  5. Caffeine and other stimulants.
  6. Alcohol consumption.

Cup of black coffee.

Caused by other medical conditions?

At the University of Alabama, several researchers conducted a study on hypnic jerks and discovered that hypnic jerks could be related to other conditions.

This is a list of the possible conditions in the study:

  1. Excessive fragmentary myoclonus.
  2. Periodic limb movements during sleep.
  3. Psychiatric diagnosis.
  4. Hyperekplexia.
  5. Restless Leg Syndrome.
  6. Seizures that are non epilectic.
  7. Nocturnal Seizures.
  8. Other parainsomnia type sleep disorders.

Hypnic jerks can also be mistaken for:

  1. Snoring.
  2. Sleep Apnea.

There is some additional research that states that hypnic jerks can be found in people that have brain lesions.

Hypnic jerks is also a symptom of Parkinson’s disease.

However, do not be alarmed if you experience hypnic jerks that does not indicate that you have the long term illness. There is much more that goes into diagnosing Parkinson’s disease.

Confusion with other sleep disorders

On its own the twitching feeling is not a sleep disorder. However, as explained in the above section it can be the result of another condition or sleep disorder or it can cause you to suffer from one.

Repeated episodes of sleep twitches can cause panic and anxiety attacks. The panic of suffering from hypnic jerks can trigger other sleep issues while you sleep and can cause difficulty sleeping.

Hypnic jerks is often mistaken for a more serious sleep disorder known as sleep apnea. This sleep disorder happens when your breathing and airways become blocked for a duration of ten seconds or more.

This is due to the fact that the tissues and muscles in your throat are relaxed. This can cause to jolt awake because your brain reacts to the lack of oxygen that is flowing in by sending signals to your arms and legs.

The other symptoms are snoring, loud breathing and having short periods of time where you do not breathe at all.

It is difficult for a person to diagnose themselves because they sometimes are not aware that they have breathing issues.

In addition, it is the “jolt” that they are experiencing that causes you wake up, which explains why it is misinterpreted as a “hypnic jerk”.

I recommend that you record yourself before you to go sleep. This method will allow you to see if there are any irregularities in your breathing patterns.

You can also consult a expert at a sleep clinic to help resolve any issue that you are experiencing. If left unchecked sleep apnea can lead to other health issues so if you think this is the cause of your hypnic jerks, then I recommend that you consult a medical professional.

The Vicious Cycle

Hypnic jerks often brings up a feeling of constant worry. This is a common occurence among many sleep issues.

For example, those who have nightmares or night terrors for a few nights in row begin to worry about going to sleep and experiencing all of the scary events that are happening in your mind.

When they go to sleep, this worrying eventually becomes the very cause of their nightmares even if the original cause of the nightmares/night terrors has been dealt with.

Car driving down a foggy road.
Looks like a scene from a scary movie.

The very same thing can happen in this case. This can cause you to feel anxiety and in turn can cause hypnic jerks to happen. This leaves most people in a vicious cycle where they feel anxious about going to sleep and the panic attacks only worsen the situation.

It can feel like fighting a battle that has no winners when faced with the two issues. Fortunately, there are methods that you can use to escape the vicious cycle and enter into a world of a good night’s sleep.

The best method is to not worry about going to sleep or the amount of sleep that you will receive. This might sound strange, yet many people have a tendency to overthink and worry too much even before they lie down in their beds.

This worrying does not help their situation, in fact it makes it worse.

Coming from my own experience, I know what it is like to lose sleep as a result of worrying too much. There was one time I remember that I could not sleep because I was concerned about passing an important exam the very next day.

I ended staying up all night and felt exhausted the next morning. (Thank you to the person who invented espresso shots)

This is what I have done to ease the worrying before going to sleep:

These steps will take your mind away from the worry and anxiety that is most likely keeping you awake at night. These actions will calm you down and lead you to a better night’s sleep. I can tell you first hand that these actions work because I have used them myself.

Soon enough everything that was bothering you will be gone. When you reach a calm state of mind, your body will follow as well and your chances of experiencing hypnic jerks will be greatly reduced.

Ways To Manage Anxiety

There are also other actions that you can take during the day that will help you manage anxiety such as:

1. Recording your thoughts in a notebook. This will help identify any reoccuring thoughts or triggers that are stressing you out and causing you to worry more.

When you are writing down your thoughts throughout the day, mentally imagine that you are transfering the thought from your brain through your arm and into the paper.

Notebook and pen.

This will help mentally clear your mind prior to sleeping at night and you will not be thinking about those very same thoughts because you have them recorded in separate location from your mind.

2. Write down anything that you have to do. These tasks can be taken care of at a later time and you will a physical reminder of what you have to accomplish. Sleep needs to be your priority. Do not worry about other things.

3. Listen to audiobooks, read physical books or listen to some relaxing music with some headphones on a low volume. This will help your brain concentrate on the medium at hand and will help you relax at the same time. Practicing mindfulness, meditation and yoga are all excellent ways to manage anxiety. These will reduce the chances that you will have hypnic jerks.

Ways That Hypnic Jerks Affects Your Life

Chronic hypnic jerks can cause issues for others and have an affect on their life or work. If hypnic jerks are causing you to lose out on sleep then that can lead to other health issues in the future.

Sleep depravation can be problematic in the short run. However, long term sleep depravation is hazardous to your health.

Most of us are aware of what happens when we do not get a good night’s sleep such as being more prone to sickness due to a weakened immune system, being in an irritable mood and feeling sluggish throughout the day.

These are just the beginning problems that happen after only one night of disrupted sleep or no sleep at all.

Gradually over time, a person could also suffer from heart disease, weight gain and depression. A lack of sleep can also cause a person to have low energy levels throughout the day and be less productive as a result.

All of these reasons are why it is so vital to take care of the causes sooner rather than later before the health problems arise.

Treatment Options

Fortunately, there are a number of different treatment options that are avaliable to help stop hypnic jerks.

By going through the treatments individually, you should be able to find what is amplifying the problem and then handle the issue so that you can go back to feeling normal.

The treatment options are:

1. Do not use any electronic devices whether that would be your smartphone, tablet, laptop, or handheld video games when you are lying in bed. Replace the electronic device with reading books and magazines instead.

2. Use blackout curtains or a sleep mask to darken your surroundings. This will help your brain produce melatonin and will help prepare you for sleep.

Heavy curtains for blocking out light.

3. Establish a solid night time routine whether that would be drinking herbal tea that contains chamomile or peppermint or taking a relaxing bath.

Bath tub and towel.

4. Avoid exercise at night time close to your bedtime. This will cause your body to charge and tense up your muscles, which is one of the causes of hypnic jerks. Schedule your exercises for the morning or afternoon. If you must exercise at night, stick to light exercises and nothing strenous.

5. Limit or avoid alcohol consumption at night. Alcohol affects the chemical structure in your brain which can make it difficult to stay awake or go to sleep.

Bottle of white wine.

It can be tempting to have some drinks at night to help you sleep, however the quality of the sleep you receive will be greatly affected as alcohol has an effect on REM sleep.

6. Limit or avoid consuming caffeine. Even drinking caffeine in the afternoon can affect how you sleep throughout the night and an insufficient amount of sleep can cause hypnic jerks. The best time to consume any type of caffeine is in the morning and no later than midday. This is just a rule of thumb. Everybody’s lifestyle is different.

Although, there are no specific medications that cater towards relieving hypnic jerks. There are some accounts that calcium and magnesium can help your muscles relax and prevent them from jolting.

The best way to incorporate magnesium into your diet is to eat foods such as avocados, dark chocolate, nuts, bananas and leafy green vegetables. All of these foods are good sources of magnesium.

Avocados and other healthy ingredients.
Avocados are your friend.

For calcium, collard greens, kale, yogurt, oatmeal and orange juice are all excellent sources.

There are also magnesium and calcium supplements that are available as well.

Of course, since everybody’s dietary requirement and food allergies are different. Please adjust accordingly.

Conclusion

Hypnic jerks is a rather interesting condition. You now have a better understanding of what hypnic jerks are. There are many interesting facts such as the anecdotal and evolutionary links. This condition is also mistaken for other sleep disorders.

Even though we do not know what the definite cause of hypnic jerks is. There are a few factors that intensify hypnic jerks such as a lack of sleep, caffeine and alcohol consumption. Increasing your calcium and magnesium intake is an excellent treatment option that you should consider.

What was your experience with hypnic jerks?

Are there any suggestions that you can offer?

Please share this post and comment with your thoughts in the comments section below.

Photo Credit: Pexels, Pixabay and Unsplash

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4 Comments on “What Are Hypnic Jerks? – Reasons Why You Twitch At Night”

  1. Hello Phil,

    Gladly. This sleep disorder is one that I have experienced before as well. I always wanted to know if it had a name and why it happens. Yes, some of causes were surprising. Sleep disorders are a very interesting topic and there are many explanations that are compelling. You have the right idea. I am all about promoting relaxation and good health to others.

    Best regards,
    Kenny Tang

  2. Hello AV 2001,

    Thank you for your feedback and I am glad that I was able to educate you more about hypnic jerks. Yes, the feeling of falling while asleep is a scary experience. I also have experienced this on one occassion and it is really something.

    Best regards,
    Kenny Tang

  3. What an interesting article. I have certainly experienced hypnic jerks when I was younger, but they disappeared as I got older. Never knew that is what they were called. 

    I was fascinated about some of the causes. Especially, the evolutionary one where our primate brain is worried about falling out of the tree and how the hypnic jerk is a response designed to jolt the body awake and hang onto a branch. The advice about how to relax and what to eat is invaluable too.

    Thanks again for all of this.

  4. Hello Kenny,

    I really enjoyed reading this article on hypnic jerks. You have provided us with tons of valuable information. Everytime I fall asleep, I feel like I am falling from a tall building or into a dark hole. This felt really weird. I started doing some research and I was lucky enough to find this article. After reading this post, I got all the necessary information I needed. 

    Thanks a lot for taking your valuable time in writing this blog post.

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