Hypnic Jerk: Causes and Treatment

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Haven’t you felt a sudden involuntary jolt when you are just falling asleep? Have you ever wondered what causes these sudden muscle contractions which wake you up from sleep?What you experience is called a Hypnic jerk, which scientists also refer to as hypnagogic jerks or more commonly as “sleep starts”. These involuntary muscle contractions are experienced by most while they are falling asleep.

The interesting fact is that hypnic jerks occur only when we transition from wakeful state to sleep state. They can go unnoticed if they are mild and doesn’t wake us up. Mostly they fail to get registered in our memory if they do not affect the sleep. But when hypnagogic jerks become hard they disrupt sleep and some people find it hard to go back to sleep again.

Who Experiences This?

Almost everyone has experienced this curious phenomenon at least once in their lives. It is estimated that 60 to 70 percent of the people feel this sleep jerks regularly.

Men and women equally experience hypnic jerks but adults are more prone to sleep starts than children and babies. Mostly it is explained as the result of more stress, intake of nicotine and alcohol and so on.

Why Does Hypnic Jerk Occur?

Researchers are not able to give an exact reason behind Hypnic jerks. Still, there are many valid theories about it.

A very interesting hypothesis about hypnic jerks is that they are natural process during the transition from wakefulness to the sleep state. It argues that it is caused when the neurons misfire during the change of state.

The second popular theory approaches the problem from an evolutionary standpoint. It explains that sleep starts are an ancient primate reflex to the relaxation of muscles during the onset of sleep. As primates were tree dwellers, this relaxation of muscles can cause falling off the tree.  The self-protection system in the brain essentially misinterprets the relaxation thus and tries to protect us by jerking us awake.

Scientists categorize the sleep starts as myoclonic jerks. These are mysterious and involuntary muscle twitches affecting the body. Hiccups are a kind of myoclonic jerk specifically affecting the diaphragm.

What Are the Symptoms?

It is difficult to classify hypnagogic jerks as a disorder. They are a natural phenomenon and very common. Because of that, the symptoms of this condition are not signs of a problem.

The normal signs of a hypnic jerk include:

  • A sudden jerk or jolt of a particular muscle or a muscle group
  • falling sensation
  • A sudden flashing sensation
  • dreaming about missing a step, slipping or falling
  • Increased heart rate
  • heavy breathing

What Causes the Sleep Twitches?

Though a lot of researches has been conducted on this mysterious muscle spasms, science cannot put a finger into the precise reason for people experiencing it.

Researchers have ruled out hypnic jerks as the symptom of any serious illness as a completely healthy person normally feels it. Hypnic jerks seem to be a sign that the motor system can still exert some control over the body as sleep paralysis begins to take over. Rather than like a switch which turns ON and OFF, sleep and wakefulness, it is believed that we have an opposing system which goes back and forth trying to take control of the body.

Nevertheless, there are certain factors that can increase the frequency of Hypnagogic jerks

Anxiety and Stress

The two factors that play the villain in any sleep-related problem is anxiety and stress. These two have the power to keep your brain on the edge, even as your muscles try to relax as you drift off to sleep. The stressed brain sends a hazard signal to the body to jerk it awake from the relaxing state.

Physical Inactivity

Our sedentary lifestyle can cause many sleep issues. Not getting necessary activity for the body triggers restlessness and can be the reason behind hypnic twitches. Nevertheless, studies have found out that heavy workouts in the evening can also trigger the jerks. 

Intake of Stimulants

The regular and over intake of stimulants like caffeine, nicotine and some drugs can affect the sleep pattern completely. This can result in sleep twitches. Chemicals in these products may prevent your brain from reaching deep sleep and instead startle your brain awake.

Poor Sleep Hygiene

Sleep disturbances and poor sleep habits may be linked to hypnagogic jerks.

How to Treat Hypnic Jerks?

More often than not, hypnic jerks are completely normal and nothing to be concerned about. However, sometimes the jerks themselves, or the anxiety about having them, can cause a significant disruption of sleep. In such cases, you should talk to a sleep specialist about your concerns. As it is not a disease the sleep jerks cannot be completely cured. But simple and effective measures can be taken to reduce it’s frequency and get quality sleep.

Avoid Alcohol

This the primary thing for getting a good nights sleep. Many people have the miss conception that alcohol is a sedative and can help to sleep. In small quantities alcohol surely does help the onset of sleep. But it is proven that alcohol-induced sleep is a disturbed one and can easily affect the quality of sleep

Saying no to alcohol would allow you to get deep sleep and prevent the hypnic jerk as well. The problem with alcohol is that it is a stimulant as well as a depressant. It would hence affect the overall chemical balance inside the brain, which can cause sleep disorders, nightmaresandhypnic jerks.Resisting the temptation to do the old ‘bottoms up’ in the bar can surely pay off well with regard to your sleep. Isn’t it better to have an 8-hour long sleep than a 4-hour buzz and a 24-hour long hang-over?

Say No to Caffeine

It definitely feels good to kick off your day with a highly caffeinated- coffee. But once you knock down some more in the evening and the afternoon, it can affect your sleep. The lack of good sleep could easily cause a hypnic jerk.It would be better for you to if you can keep caffeine down to a minimum. Even if you have it, make sure that you do so in the morning and make sure that you avoid it past midday. This would give you the edge when fighting against the jerks

Do Light Exercises

Most sleep irregularities stem from the couch. If you want to sleep better, you have to start moving more regularly. Consider morning walks or joining the gym. It is better to push yourself in the morning as it can easily cause hypnagogic jerks if you do it too close to your bedtime. It is, in fact, one of the leading causes of the problem. Prefer heavy workouts in the morning and if only evening time suits you, go for light ones like yoga or walking. A lot of light sleepers seem to benefit from physical activity.

Learn Relaxation Techniques

It can do you reallygoodif you know some breathing exercises that relax your mind and body. If you don’t, try learning some as soon as the opportunity finds you as it can really help to fight sleep irregularities. You can also calm your nerves by listening to white noise like soothing music or chanting of a mantra. Studies have proven them to be very effective in fighting stress and anxiety. Some aromatic oils and herbs can also do the trick. Keeping such sweet smelling oils or incense where you sleep can improve the quality of sleep. This would also result in a lot less hypnic twitches if any at all.

Don't Bring the Screen to the Bed

Create a bedtime routine for yourself which helps you fall asleep. Firstly avoid technology entirely. Remove the  TV from your bedroom, and leave your phone in the other room, and absolutely no binge-watching the Netflix. Next use your relaxation breathing technique to calm your mind. This will help you to put aside the issues at work and be ready for sleep. Your mind would quickly adjust to a stress-free environment which induces relaxation. This would easily lead to a deeper, twitch-free state of sleep which is more beneficial.


There are a few food supplements that you could use with the prescription of a certified medical practitioner to reduce twitching through the night. Calcium, as well as magnesium, are known to relax your muscles and to prevent spasms. Magnesium facilitates proper blood flow and is used to prevent blood clots. Some believe the clots are a reason for the jerks.

Stick to a routine

Make sure to go to bed at the same time every day. Avoid late night parties as it can affect your routine. Once your brain gets used to the time you go to bed, you will naturally feel sleepy at that time. This will greatly improve sleep quality and can counteract hypnic twitches.

If you feel like the sleep starts are too frequent, you can resort to these supplements with the advice of a doctor.

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