Have you ever been lying down in bed, just about to drift off to sleep when suddenly your body jerks you awake? Out of the blue, you’re startled by this involuntary twitching, and you can feel your heart racing. If you’ve found yourself in this situation before, rest assured that you’re not the only one, and this twitch is more common than you might think.
This phenomenon is called a hypnic jerk or a sleep twitch. While it may be entirely normal, that doesn’t make it any more pleasant. Hypnic jerking is nothing more than an involuntary twitch that usually happens just as you are about to doze off. While it’s known by several different names, they each describe the same experience.
What is Hypnic (Hypnagogic) Jerking?
Hypnagogic jerking1 refers to involuntary muscle contractions that cause sudden and brief twitches or “jumps” when you’re trying to fall asleep. The word “hypnagogic” describes the transitional period as you are falling asleep; a state between being awake and being asleep1. These startling, involuntary jerks of the muscles occur during this time and can easily disrupt bedtime, leaving you feeling wide awake.1
Some people experiencing these jerks may lash out or move their legs and arms, while others might jump or twitch ever so slightly. Occasionally people shout or yell2 when it happens, and other times, people aren’t even aware that it occurs unless a partner tells them the next day.
Hypnic jerks are a type of myoclonus or myoclonic jerk3, which is a quick jerking movement that you can’t control. Other examples of myoclonus jerks include hiccups or certain symptoms of nervous system disorders like seizures from epilepsy.3
Different Names for Hypnic Jerking
As mentioned, hypnic jerks are also commonly known as hypnagogic jerks4, referring to the time between being awake and falling asleep. They are also called sleep starts.2 While there may be a few different names for them, each name refers to the same phenomenon.
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Symptoms of Hypnagogic Jerking
The most common symptom of a hypnic jerk is a sudden, involuntary jerking of the muscles– usually in the arms or legs.1 The sleeper may or may not wake up from this jerk or be aware of it.2 Other common symptoms that can accompany this involuntary “jumping” of the muscles include1:
- A feeling of falling
- Waking up feeling startled or anxious
- Rapid heart rate
- Accelerated breathing
- A sensory flash
- Hypnagogic hallucination
Hypnagogic hallucinations5 are visual images or very short dreams that occur as you’re just drifting off to sleep. Sometimes these hallucinations are more than visual – they can also be auditory or somatic, where you hear something that’s not there or feel something that’s not there.5 When they accompany a hypnic jerk, these hallucinations can often be the sensation of falling.
Causes of Hypnic Jerking
According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, hypnic jerks are quite common, with up to 70 percent of people of all ages experiencing them at some point in their life.2 Adults are more likely to complain of frequent or intense jerks compared to children, and while they are a common occurrence, there are certain factors that increase your risk for experiencing hypnic jerks2:
- Poor sleep habits – Irregular sleep schedules, chronic sleep loss, and frequently interrupted slumber may contribute to involuntary twitches.
- Stimulants – Caffeine, nicotine, and certain drugs can impact the body and brain, making these movements more likely.
- Late Exercise – While exercise is important for the body, working out too close to bedtime can have a stimulating effect on the brain, leading to twitching.
- Anxiety – Stress and worries can also stimulate the brain, making it difficult to wind down for sleep, which may increase the likelihood of hypnic jerking.
There are some interesting theories as to why we experience hypnic jerks at all, aside from outside factors like caffeine, stress, or exercise. For example, some experts6 believe it is an evolutionary byproduct from our ancestors’ earliest days. If our bodies began to relax into sleep, we might experience a sudden jolt to prevent us from fully relaxing and falling from the safety of the tree in which we were resting.6
Others theorize7 that sleep starts are a way for our body to test whether or not sleep paralysis has yet taken effect. When we go into REM sleep, our body goes into “sleep paralysis” in order to prevent us from acting out our dreams.7 The theory is that hypnic jerks might be the brain sending electrical signals to test the muscles for this paralysis, a bit too early, before the sleeper has actually gone into REM sleep.7
Whatever the reason behind hypnic jerks, they can be an unpleasant disruption to sleep. Luckily, there are some ways to prevent them or lessen their frequency.
Tips to Prevent Hypnagogic Jerk
Since the stimulating effects of caffeine can lead to hypnic jerks and make it harder to fall asleep, the best thing to do is to cut back on your caffeine consumption and avoid caffeine up to six hours before you go to bed. That means if your bedtime is 10:00 p.m., you shouldn’t consume caffeine after 4:00 p.m.
Read More: Caffeine and Sleep
Even though alcohol might have an initial sedative effect, it can result in more disrupted rest10. Alcohol can cause insomnia, circadian rhythm sleep disorders, shorter sleep duration, and breathing-related sleep events like snoring and sleep apnea.10 All of these disruptions to sleep can lead to an increased likelihood of hypnic jerks.
Get More Info: How Does Alcohol Affect Sleep?
Exercise11 is vital for your physical and mental health, not to mention your sleep. If you aren’t already, you should be getting at least 150 minutes of moderate physical activity and two days of muscle strengthening-exercise per week12.
However, there are appropriate times of the day when you should be exercising. Research shows that vigorous exercise in the hour before bedtime13 is likely to disrupt sleep. This disrupted sleep can then increase the likelihood of hypnic jerks.2
Instead of exercising just before bed, try moving your workout earlier in the day. Give yourself a few hours between an elevated heart rate and lying down to sleep, and see if that helps.
Different herbs and essential oils may help induce a deeper and more relaxed sleep, reducing your risk of hypnic jerks. Lavender14, for example, has been shown to reduce anxiety and induce sleepiness when inhaled. When ingested, valerian root15 could also improve sleep quality.
Find Out More:Pillow Mists & Sprays: Do They Really Help You Sleep?
Blue light16 emitted from screens like cell phones, T.V.s, tablets, and computers can make it harder to fall asleep by obstructing your body’s natural melatonin production, making you feel less sleepy at bedtime. We recommend giving yourself at least one hour before bed with no screens so that your body will naturally get sleepy. If you can’t do an hour, then at least give yourself 30 minutes without screen time.
Learn More: How Technology Impacts Sleep Quality
Magnesium is the prime supplement when it comes to reducing hypnic jerks because not only has it been shown to decrease anxiety and improve sleep quality17, but it also helps relax the muscles. Magnesium does this by acting on the benzodiazepine receptors in the brain, which is how valium works.17 However, unlike valium, you do not need a prescription for magnesium, and it’s generally considered a safe sleep aid.17 You should take this supplement about one hour to 30 minutes before bed, and the best type seems to be magnesium glycinate or citrate.17
Additionally, research shows that many Americans don’t get enough magnesium18 from diet alone, so supplementing before bed is not a bad idea.
Read More: Best Magnesium Supplement
Melatonin is another common sleep aid that could help you fall asleep more easily and may help reduce the likelihood of hypnic jerks. However, if you are taking any medication, are pregnant, or have any health issues, we recommend consulting with your doctor before taking any supplements.
Read More: Best Melatonin Supplement
View Our Comparison: Magnesium vs. Melatonin
How to Reduce Anxiety Before Bed
There are several ways to reduce anxiety before bed, and they all center around calming the body and mind. Yoga, meditation, journaling, taking a warm bath or hot shower, reading a book, or doing some relaxing stretches can be helpful. It is important to shift your mind from a state of stress into a state of peace and calm before lying down to sleep.
For some people, it helps to take five minutes to write out your anxious thoughts, allowing yourself to worry about them for a set amount of time only. When you’re done, close the journal and shift your focus to something that calms you. Just remember to turn off the television or put down your phone about an hour before bedtime in order to get sleepy. If, however, you find that a calming T.V. show is the only thing that winds you down, try watching it wearing blue-light-blocking glasses, so that it won’t impact your melatonin production.
For More Info: How to Cope With Anxiety and Sleep
Frequently Asked Questions
Is a hypnic jerk a sleep disorder?
Hypnic jerks are normal and are not considered a sleep disorder. However, certain sleep disorders that cause you to lose sleep may mean you’re more likely to experience hypnic jerks2.
Why do you twitch in your sleep?
There is no definitive answer to why we twitch in our sleep, though there are several theories. We do know, however, that excessive alcohol, too much caffeine, exercising too close to bedtime, stress, anxiety, and poor sleep habits can increase a person’s likelihood of experiencing these hypnic jerks2.
Can hypnic jerk be a near-death experience?
While it may temporarily feel like a life or death situation, hypnic jerks tend to last for no more than a microsecond and don’t cause any actual physical harm1.
The issue is that experiencing hypnic jerks could cause anxiety if they happen over and over again. In addition, these twitches may disrupt your sleep, which could, in turn, lead to more twitching.
What does it mean if you jump in your sleep?
There are a few different explanations for why you may “jump” in your sleep. Heavy snorers or those with sleep apnea can experience this “jump” feeling because their airways may become blocked. This “jump” is the body alerting them to wake up in order to get enough oxygen19 into their bodies.
It is also quite common and normal to have hypnic jerks as you are falling asleep. This may feel like you’re abruptly falling and jolting awake just as you were starting to doze off.
Additionally, dreams can cause you to jump in your sleep. Normally during REM sleep, which is usually when we dream, our bodies enter a state known as muscle atonia20. Essentially, your muscles become paralyzed so that you don’t physically act out your dreams.20 However, there are times when this doesn’t happen and you may sleepwalk or flail around in your dreamlike state.
Can a hypnic jerk happen while you’re awake?
Hypnic jerks usually happen when you’re beginning to fall asleep, but they can also happen when you’re already sleeping, during stage two21 of NREM sleep. While you’re awake, regular muscle twitching can also happen, but this is different from a hypnic jerk. Muscle twitching22 that occurs while you’re awake can be caused by a number of things, including substance abuse, alcoholism, spinal cord injuries, nerve damage, genetic disorders, certain degenerative disorders like Alzheimer’s, vitamin, mineral, or electrolyte imbalances, autoimmune diseases, certain prescription medications, brain lesions, or ingesting a toxin or poison.
Can you cure hypnic jerks?
While there is no known cure, you may be able to reduce twitching by following the recommendations we gave above. Minimize caffeine and alcohol, exercise during normal training hours, manage your stress, unplug, and make sure that you have a good night’s sleep. Try not to focus on twitching as you’re falling asleep and you should be able to see a difference.
How might hypnic jerks affect my life?
If the situation becomes chronic and you’re experiencing severe hypnic jerks, this could have a rather serious impact on your life. It may result in sleep deprivation, stress, and anxiety. Additionally, a lack of sleep is also known to cause additional health issues23 such as depression, weight gain, high blood pressure, heart conditions, and more.
If you’re experiencing chronic hypnic twitching, talk to your doctor to discuss possible solutions.
Our Final Thoughts
While hypnic jerks are quite common and may happen for no reason at all, they could also be a sign that you need to take a step back and look at your overall lifestyle. If you’re not making time for sleep or have poor habits that are keeping you awake at night, you may find that prioritizing rest helps alleviate hypnic jerks.
Take a look at the common causes we’ve listed above, and follow our steps for reducing hypnic twitches. While you may not be able to prevent them entirely, you should be able to minimize them. In the end, remember that they aren’t considered dangerous, and in most cases, they go away on their own.
- McVean, Ada. “What are Hypnic Jerks”. McGill University. https://www.mcgill.ca/oss/article/did-you-know/hypnic-jerks. 2017.
- “Sleep Starts”. American Academy of Sleep Medicine. https://sleepeducation.org/sleep-disorders/sleep-starts/. 2021.
- “Myoclonus”. Mayo Clinic. Last modified January 13, 2023. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/myoclonus/symptoms-causes/syc-20350459.
- Ghibellini, Romain., Meier, Beat. “The hypnagogic state: A brief update”. National Library of Medicine. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC10078162/. 2023.
- “Hypnagogic Hallucinations”. Cleveland Clinic. Last modified June 10, 2022. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/23234-hypnagogic-hallucinations.
- Castro, Joseph. “Why Do People ‘Twitch’ When Falling Asleep?”. LiveScience. https://www.livescience.com/39225-why-people-twitch-falling-asleep.html. 2017.
- “What are Hypnagogic Jerks? Twitches Before Sleep.”. Mental Health Daily. Webpage accessed July 24, 2023. https://mentalhealthdaily.com/2015/05/19/what-are-hypnagogic-jerks-twitches-before-sleep/.
- Sathe, Harshal., Karia, Sagar., et al. “Hypnic jerks possibly induced by escitalopram”. National Library of Medicine. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4481805/. 2015.
- Drake PhD, Christopher., Roehrs PhD, Timothy., “Caffeine effects on sleep taken 0, 3, or 6 hours before going to bed”. National Library of Medicine. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3805807/. 2023.
- He, Sean., Hasler PhD, Brant P., Chakravorty MD, Subhajit. “Alcohol and sleep-related problems”. National Library of Medicine. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6801009/. 2019.
- “Benefits of Physical Activity”. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Last modified June 28, 2023. https://www.cdc.gov/physicalactivity/basics/pa-health/index.htm.
- “How much physical activity do adults need?”. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Last modified June 2, 2022. https://www.cdc.gov/physicalactivity/basics/adults/index.htm.
- LeWine MD, Howard. “Does exercising at night affect sleep?”. Harvard Health Publishing. https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/does-exercising-at-night-affect-sleep. 2019.
- Donelli, Davide., Antonelli, Michele., et al. “Effects of lavender on anxiety: A systematic review and meta-analysis”. National Library of Medicine. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31655395/. 2019.
- Shinjyo, Noriko., Waddell, Guy., Green, Julia. “Valerian Root in Treating Sleep Problems and Associated Disorders-A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis”. National Library of Medicine. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33086877/. 2020.
- “Blue light has a dark side”. Harvard Health Publishing. https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/blue-light-has-a-dark-side. 2020.
- “What an Expert Says About Taking Magnesium for Sleep”. UC San Diego Health. https://myhealth.ucsd.edu/RelatedItems/6,1659474634. 2023.
- Zeratsky, Katherine. “‘I’ve heard that magnesium supplements have health benefits. Should I take one?”. Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/expert-answers/magnesium-supplements/faq-20466270. 2021.
- “Sleep Apnea”. Cleveland Clinic. Last modified November 15, 2022. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/8718-sleep-apnea.
- “Muscle Atonia”. Science Direct. Webpage accessed August 28, 2023. https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/medicine-and-dentistry/muscle-atonia.
- “Hypnic Jerk”. ScienceDirect. Webpage accessed July 24, 2023. https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/medicine-and-dentistry/hypnic-jerk.
- “Myoclonus (Muscle Twitch)”. Cleveland Clinic. Last modified March 16, 2023. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/symptoms/15301-myoclonus-muscle-twitch.
- “What Are Sleep Deprivation and Deficiency?”. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. Webpage accessed July 24, 2023. https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/sleep-deprivation.
Jill Zwarensteyn is the Editor for Sleep Advisor and a Certified Sleep Science Coach. She is enthusiastic about providing helpful and engaging information on all things sleep and wellness.