Hypnic Jerk: Why Do I Twitch in My Sleep?

By: SleepScore Labs  |  October 26th, 2020

What is a hypnic jerk?

Have you ever had that dream where you feel like you’re 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. 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.

In most cases, hypnic jerks are a normal part of sleep initiation. These spasms usually occur randomly, affect all ages and sexes equally, and intermittently occur in about 70% of the population, with up to 10% of people experiencing them daily. Although there is a common perception among sleep scientists and clinicians that hypnic jerks are generally benign, they can certainly be startling – especially if they happen frequently!

Why You Might Be Twitching While Sleeping

Hypnic jerks affect nearly everyone. But why do people twitch in their sleep? Though the exact cause and reason for these jerks or twitches are unclear, there are some explanations.

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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 (a rare phenomenon known as dream incorporation). This is yet another example of a strange and interesting trait we can thank our ancient relatives for.

Another possible explanation is that your brain electrically “misfires” as you transition from wakefulness to sleep. Hypnic jerks generally occur during the stage of sleep in which your muscles start to relax and you begin drifting off. During this time, motor areas of the brain can become spontaneously stimulated. Your brain may misinterpret this stimulation as wakefulness during a less-than-seamless transition to sleep. Since hypnic jerks are unlikely to occur nightly and on a regular basis, this suggests that other external factors may be contributing to this “misfiring”.

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External factors contributing to hypnic jerks may include:

  • Exercising in the evening, which can make it more difficult for your body to relax when it’s time to go to bed.
  • Consuming stimulants like caffeine, nicotine, or certain medications, which are known to disrupt your sleep schedule.
  • Leading a high-stress lifestyle, which can contribute to your brain remaining overly active as you are trying to fall asleep.
  • External sleep disruptions like loud noises and bright lights, or even a partner working in bed next to you, which can hinder your ability to cycle into deep sleep.

How to stop twitching in your sleep?

Other reasons for these hypnagogic jerks or sleep starts 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. If you experience nightly hypnic jerks and are concerned about your sleep, it may be a good idea to reach out to your doctor and discuss additional treatment options.

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Exercise earlier in the day

Daytime physical activity is important for healthy nighttime sleep. However, intense physical activity too close to bedtime may disrupt your sleep. In order to avoid late-night exercise affecting sleep, stop moderate-intensity exercise at least 90 minutes before your nightly pre-sleep routine. This will allow your core body temperature and endorphins to return to levels that are conducive to sleeping.

In addition to nightly exercise, 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 hypnic jerks.

Establish a sleep schedule and bedtime routine

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 this 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. Prep yourself for bed by dimming the lights and doing an activity to help slow down your heart rate and relax the mind, like reading or breathing exercises.

Remove external sleep distractions and stressors

Charlotte Bronte once said, “A ruffled mind makes a restless pillow.” The old adage is fitting; stress and anxiety can disrupt sleep and exacerbate hypnic jerks. Reducing stress through mindfulness meditation, breathing techniques, progressive muscle relaxation, and other techniques may help reduce hypnic jerks.

External sleep distractions may also hinder your sleep. Leaving the TV on, sleeping with the windows open, having bright lights shining in, and other external sounds and stimulation can keep you from falling and staying asleep. Find ways to cut out outside disruptions. For example, wear a sleep mask, hang curtains to block light, or wear ear plugs to reduce the volume of sounds you can’t control.

It’s important to remember that hypnic jerks are not a serious condition and are unlikely to cause complication. Nonetheless, if you are feeling anxious or concerned about hypnic jerks and are aware that you experience them regularly, talk to your health care provider for guidance on what you can do to improve your experience of falling asleep and staying asleep.

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Sleep well!


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