Hypnic Jerk: Why Do I Twitch in My Sleep?

By: Leah Perri  |  February 17th, 2021

Have you ever had that dream where you are falling from the sky and then you jolt in bed as you get closer to the ground? Turns out there’s a name for that! Hypnagogic jerks, also known as hypnic jerks or sleep starts, are involuntary muscle contractions that people experience as they are falling asleep. This sensation is named for the transition from wakefulness into sleep as your mind and body get ready for bed. These muscle jerks can be mild and unnoticeable, but there are times when they are intense enough to wake you up. These spasms are a normal phenomenon and can occur randomly. Interestingly, 60-70% of people experience twitching when falling asleep 

There are some experiences that can occur alongside these muscle twitches while sleeping. These can include dreaming about situations of being startled, jumping, or falling, as well as rapid heartbeats and rapid breathing. Though the exact cause and reason for these jerks or twitches are unclear, there are some explanations.  

What is a hypnic jerk?

One hypothesis goes back to our primate ancestors. It suggests that when they were sleeping in the trees and fell out, their muscles tensed up to brace for impact. These sleep jerks may be remnants of that reflex. The brain misinterprets relaxation as falling out of a tree, and the jerks are the body tensing up. This correlates with the symptoms of falling or being startled when we dream. Another strange and interesting trait we can thank our ancient relatives for.  

Your brain may be confused 

Another possible explanation is that your brain thinks you’re awake, when in reality you’re just trying to get some sleep. These jerks are most likely to occur during the transition from a wakeful state to a sleeping state. Specifically, they occur during the stage of sleep in which your muscles start to relax, and you begin drifting off. During this time, you can be easily awakened by external stimuli, and your brain may misinterpret this stage as wakefulnessDue to this reason, thoughts about doing certain physical activities may trigger an involuntary muscle response to that thought. For example, thinking about jumping may lead to your body to quickly react and tense up your legs to prepare for the action.  

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How to stop twitching in your sleep?

Other reasons for these hypnagogic jerks may be under your control that you can influence with your daily routine. Keep in mind that not everyone will experience the same results. Patience and trying out different methods can help in find the best one that is the most beneficial for you specifically 

Physical activity is important for healthy sleep. A potential cause of the jerks may be that there’s excess stimulation in the body, and you need to work it off. Try exercising in the morning to relieve that tension, but if you can’t then doing some low intensity exercises such as yoga or Pilates later in the day may help. If you plan on doing evening workouts be sure they’re not too close to bedtime as this can have the opposite effect and give you more energy, making it difficult to fall asleep. Not something you want as you get ready for bed. 

If exercise can’t burn off that extra energy, try reducing the amount of coffee and alcohol you have during the day. Reducing your intake after midday can help in lessening the jitters and possible restlessness. Having too much before bed will not only make it difficult to fall asleep, but it may also increase the frequency of the hypnagogic jerks.  

For a better night of sleep, maintain a regular sleep schedule and bedtime routine. This routine helps the body know when it’s time for bed and over time will make it easier to fall asleep consistently each night. Having an irregular sleeping pattern due to shift work or late nights could possibly lead to an increase in twitching while sleeping. Any disturbances in sleep or sleep deprivation in general can also add to the frequency. Prep yourself for bed by dimming the lights and doing an activity to help slow down your heart rate and relax the brain, like reading or breathing exercises.  

A busy mind can make it difficult to fall asleep and stay asleep and a brain that is active is more easily startled. Having a relaxed mind, rather than one that is very alert and therefore easily started, reduces the chance of you waking up unnecessarily from involuntary muscle twitches. Stress and anxiety are factors in sleep difficulty, and they may be why you experience jerks more often. It’s important to remember that hypnagogic jerks are not a sleep disorder. Still, if you are feeling anxious or concerned about hypnagogic jerks and are aware that you experience them regularly, it’s always an option to talk to your health care provider for guidance on what you can do to improve your experience of falling asleep and staying asleep    

Sleep well!