Surely, I can’t be the only person to experience body jerks before falling asleep.
I can feel myself slowly drifting away into my nightly slumber. I feel soothed, relaxed and ready to drop off.
And then suddenly, Bam!
I feel as though I’ve just completed a back flip, with pike jump, followed by a forward roll to impress the judges – a combination that any Olympic floor gymnast would be proud of.
Okay, I exaggerate somewhat, but you know what I mean (I hope).
However, nightly twitches and spasms are something that I and I’m sure many other people experience.
So, I’d like to look to investigate this weird phenomenon a little closer.
What Are These Uncontrollable Spasms?
Did you know that there’s an actual name for the episodes of body jerks we have as we’re about to fall asleep?
Well, to be honest, from my research I note there are several names, just to confuse matters further.
I have seen these involuntary twitches referred to as myoclonic jerks, sleep twitch, night start, sleep start, hypnagogic jerks, and hypnic jerks.
I find this strangely comforting. If there’s a name (several) for it, then it’s a “thing”, and so I can’t be the only person who suffers this strange anomaly.
The name that rings most true to me is “hypnagogic jerk”, as these twitches most commonly occur when you are in a hypnagogic state. This is when you caught between that tiny corridor of being awake and asleep.
The names hypnagogic jerk and hypnic jerk are often interchangeable, although I have also seen hypnic jerks referred to as the twitch we have upon awakening.
As I delved a little further into this subject I discovered that at least 70% of people experience a hypnagogic jerk at least once in their life, whereas 10% people have to live with this being a daily occurrence.
Yay! I’m not alone.
The most common type of jerk is the feeling of jumping as though you’ve just been startled, which is often accompanied by a falling sensation.
Now you’re with me, aren’t you?
I know for a fact, through discussions with others, that the falling sensation while we’re falling asleep is pretty much universal.
What I didn’t know is that for some people this feeling is accompanied by a sharp cry – perhaps the fear that they are genuinely falling (usually off the edge of a cliff in my experience).
If you have ever woken up after a hypnic jerk you will typically have an unexplained feeling of shock, perhaps a rapid heartbeat and breathing heavily, and you may even have broken out into a hot sweat.
It appears that some people even have accompanying hallucinations and vivid dreams.
Why Do We Have These Body Jerks?
I would say that if up to 70% of people experience these night starts (sorry, I can see myself alternating between all the given names throughout this article) then they may be considered a completely normal part of sleep.
However, it seems that the majority of people have these spasms fairly infrequently, so in reality it isn’t seen as a massive problem.
Nevertheless, for the poor souls who suffer the jerks on a regular basis it can be extremely distressing.
In fact, persistent night-time jerks may cause anxiety about falling asleep, which can eventually lead to insomnia.
The most common time for hypnagogic jerks to occur in the first stage of sleep. This is the transitional period between wakefulness and sleep and typically lasts no longer than 10 minutes at most.
With that being said, these jerks and twitches may also occur later in the night when we are in a deeper state of sleep, but I guess we are far less likely to recall them happening during this stage of sleep.
The Journal of Neural Transmission conducted a study on sleep disturbances and confirmed that hypnic jerks occur during the non-rapid eye movement stage of sleep.
REM sleep is the final stage of the sleep cycle and when we are typically dreaming. I actually find it quite interesting that the jerks occur well before the “dream stage”, which I guess makes it harder to explain the falling sensation. I always assumed I was dreaming that I was falling off something, but apparently not.
Anyway, back to the Journal of Neural Transmission’s study – They described a hypnic jerk as an “abrupt muscle action flexion movement” and state that it can be partial or generalized and can also cause arousal, with the illusion that you are falling.
They concluded that hypnic jerks are more prevalent in children, aged 8-12, and they can experience these twitches anywhere from 4-7 times an hour. From the ages of 65-80 they tend to reduce to no more than 1-2 incidents an hour.
There are various reasons why we may experience hypnic jerks and the American Academy of Sleep Medicine has listed many of the causes:
- Stimulants, such as caffeine and nicotine appear to be the most popular reason.
- Stress and anxiety could be to blame for regular twitches throughout the night.
- Strenuous physical exercise, especially in the evening just a few hours before bed.
- Fatigue or sleep deprivation.
- Other sleep disorders, such as sleep apnea may even be to blame.
Hypnic Jerks Shouldn’t Be Confused With Other Conditions
There are, of course, numerous other conditions that cause people to move and twitch in their sleep, and these shouldn’t be confused with hypnic jerks.
- Restless leg syndrome – This is typically characterized by an uncontrollable (but voluntary) urge to move the legs. It is often described as an unpleasant itching, tingling, crawling or aching feeling that improves once we move the legs.
- Periodic limb movements (PLM) – PLM is a disorder that shouldn’t be confused with restless leg syndrome. This is where you move the limbs (most typically the leg area), but the movement is completely involuntary. However, these are not single, isolated incidents, which is usually the case with hypnagogic jerks. PLM, as the name suggests will occur periodically while you sleep.
- Fasciculations – This is something that I suffer from every now-and-then and is when a muscle or group of muscles twitch. However, these often occur during hours of wakefulness and look as though the muscle is quivering. I have even heard it described as looking like a “bag of worms”.
- Rhythmic movement disorder (RMD) – RMD is a neurological disorder that is associated with repetitively moving the neck and head immediately before and during sleep.
- Seizures – This generally involves a very large movement of the body, although this does very much depend on the type of seizure. You can easily distinguish a seizure from a hypnic jerk, as they tend to last for at least a minute, and are often associated with tongue or lip biting. Seizures may also lead to a loss of bladder control with incontinence. Injuries are fairly commonplace with seizures.
Are There Any Specific Treatments For Hypnagogic Jerks?
I would say that in the main there is no real need for treatment for hypnagogic jerks, as it is a fairly common occurrence for many people.
However, if you do suffer with frequent movements and they also lead to other complaints, such as fear of falling asleep, insomnia, bed wetting, tongue biting, and extreme confusion when you wake up, then it may be advisable to seek medical help. This way you can rule out the possibility of another condition.
You can also reduce the occurrence of hypnic jerks by controlling your consumption of stimulants, such as nicotine andcaffeine. Plus you may want to avoid particularly strenuous forms of exercise prior to going to bed.
Increasing your intake of magnesium is not only great for sleep in general, but it should also help to control hypnic jerks.
These twitches and spasms can also be provoked by certain medications, and indeed by substance abuse.
So, I would say initially it’s important to look at your overall lifestyle first if hypnic jerks are becoming a worry for you.
With that being said, some people may become fixated on these jerks, and this in itself can lead to stress and anxiety about sleeping, which in turn can turn into severe sleep deprivation and insomnia. A vicious loop if you will.
Once again, I urge you to visit your Doctor and discuss these jerks in more detail if you feel they are starting to have some form of control over your sleeping habits.
So, firstly I have to say that I’m glad these jerking movements aren’t just something that I experience.
With that being said, whereas hypnic jerks aren’t a cause for concern for the vast majority of us, it appears that it can cause certain issues for those who experience these nightly twitches on a more regular basis.
We now know that hypnic jerks can be attributed to various lifestyle choices we choose to make, such as stimulants like caffeine and nicotine.
However, stress and anxiety over having these jerks can actually make the “condition” worse, and may even lead to other sleep disorders.
What about you?
Have you ever experienced a hypnic jerk?
Is this a regular occurrence for you?
Does this worry you or is it something you’ve not particularly thought about?
Please feel free to comment below, I’d love to hear from you.