Hypnic Jerk – Jolted Awake When Falling Asleep

cartoon of a man having a hypnic jerkIf you’re unsure if you’ve ever experienced a hypnic jerk, ask yourself this question:

Have you ever woken up with a sudden jolt just as you’ve started falling asleep? Or maybe it felt like you were falling?

It could be that it felt like you were having a huge muscle spasm. You may have even felt a small shock sensation or a bouncing feeling.

Perhaps it was even your partner that was experiencing it, and this in itself startled you back to consciousness.

It could be then (though not necessarily) that you experienced a hypnic jerk. And if so, you’re certainly not alone.

It’s estimated that around 70% of people experience hypnic jerks at some point in their lives. I know I definitely have.

Different names

The world of sleep can be confusing, and there’s no exception when it comes to hypnic jerks. It can be confusing because it’s also sometimes referred to by the following names:

  • Night starts.
  • Sleep starts.
  • Hypnagogic jerk – hypnagogic being a term used to describe the period of time when falling asleep.
  • Myoclonus, or myoclonic jerk – this is the medical term to describe an involuntary muscle twitch.

What is a hypnic jerk exactly?

A hypnic jerk is an involuntary twitching of a muscle, or muscles (the myoclonus as mentioned above). They usually occur just as you’re falling asleep, during what’s known scientifically as the hypnagogic state of consciousness.

That’s why they’re sometimes call hypnagogic jerks: you most commonly experience them when falling asleep.

Note that hypnic is also a shortened version of the word ‘hypnagogic’. So you can see why there various possible expressions to describe the same thing.

When you experience a hypnic jerk it often causes you to wake up suddenly. And when you wake up you may feel like you’re experiencing a sudden and dramatic falling or jolting sensation.

Interestingly, the muscle twitching you experience also occurs in other situations, for example hiccups are also muscle twitches.

That strange time of the night

It’s during the phase of falling asleep that several unusual phenomenon may take place. For example, I discussed in a previous article the various sleep paralysis experiences people have. Those often come with bizarre or frightening hallucinations and even out-of-body experiences.

Luckily there’s nothing to be worried about: hypnic jerks along with these other phenomenon are not dangerous. They may be unsettling or frightening, but you don’t need to fear going to sleep just because they may happen to you.

Polls

During 2015 I ran 3 polls for readers to share their experience of hypnic jerks. With thousands of people participating, the results provide an interesting look at how hypnic jerks affect people.

Poll 1

a graph showing the results of a poll about how frequently people experience hypnic jerksPoll 2

a graph showing the results of a poll about the impact hypnic jerks has on their sleepPoll 3

Poll 3 shows something very interesting: that a clear majority of people feel that stress or anxiety makes their hypnic jerks worse (7,437 out of 14,638 votes).

This is in fact something I’ve read many times in the hundreds of comments readers have left. So it seems that tackling stress or anxiety is definitely something worth considering trying to do if you’re struggling with hypnic jerks.

a graph showing the results of a poll about whether or not stress makes hypnic jerks worse

What causes the hypnic jerk?

So now you know that the hypnic jerk is a twitching of the muscles. But what causes the muscles to twitch in the first place?

As is often the case in the complex world of sleep, scientists are still not 100% certain about the cause. However, they do believe that the following factors can all contribute to hypnic jerks happening:

  • Anxiety.
  • Stress.
  • Alcohol.
  • Caffeine.
  • Heavy exercise late in the evening.
  • Sleeping in an uncomfortable position.
  • Being very tired or fatigued.

In addition to these factors which can contribute to the likelihood of a hypnic jerk occurring, there are some theories as to why they happen:

1. The first theory is that they happen as your nervous system relaxes and slows down when transitioning from wakefulness to sleep. Your breathing slows down, temperature drops and your muscles relax. So they might happen when nerves misfire during this slowing down process, resulting in the muscular spasm.

2. The second theory is that while relaxing as you fall asleep, your brain sometimes gets confused and thinks you’re falling. So it sends signals to the arms and legs to move to an upright position, resulting in the jerking sensation.

3. Following from the second idea, a popular evolutionary theory suggests that the ancient primate brain may have mistaken relaxation for falling out of a tree, and so the jerking is the brain waking you up quickly to take action.

4. Another evolutionary theory suggest that your brain wakes you up one last time so you can check that you’ve take the necessary steps to keep yourself safe at night.

Is it another sleep disorder?

If you’re experiencing what you think are hypnic jerks, then for some people it could be something more serious like Sleep Apnea.

If you have breathing difficulties when sleeping, or wake up with a gasp or croak it may be wise to consult a medical professional to rule out Apnea.

A doctor would also be able to rule out the possibility of epilepsy. A small number of people with epilepsy only experience seizures during the sleeping hours.

If you also experience strange or uncomfortable sensations in your legs, or have regular twitching during the day or evening then it’s possible that you may have restless legs syndrome. Again this would need to be diagnosed by a medical professional or sleep expert.

And most rarely of all, is the possibility of exploding head syndrome. This sleep disorder is also harmless and is characterized by a very loud noise in your head. It could sound like a bang or any other loud noise, and will wake you up suddenly.

For the majority of people though, the hypnic jerk is a common and harmless phenomenon.

How can you stop hypnic jerks?

The hypnic jerk is such a common occurrence that it may not be possible to prevent it happening completely. However, you can take steps to address some of the factors thought to increase the likelihood:

  • You can cut down on alcohol and caffeine, especially in the 3-4 hours before going to bed.
  • Try not to do heavy exercise late in the evening or night.
  • Ensure you’re getting sufficient magnesium and calcium in your diet – this can help with muscle and nerve spasms.
  • Make sure you have a comfortable mattress and bedding, and that you sleep in a comfortable position, even with a partner. Personally I’ve found that I often experience hypnic jerks when I’m cuddling my partner to fall asleep, but am not really in the most comfortable position.
  • If you’re someone that suffers from anxiety or stress, then this is an important issue to try and address. You may find some useful advice in the section about relaxation exercises for sleep and also the article about mindfulness exercises. These cover both practical short-term exercises and also ideas for more long-term techniques to tackle stress and anxiety.
  • Try not to allow yourself to get too tired or fatigued. Obviously this depends on your particular circumstances, as some people understandably have very busy and tiring lives. But it may be up to you to try to give more importance to how much sleep you get.

Avoid the vicious cycle of worry

Hypnic jerks can become cyclical if you start worrying about them. This is a very common thing that happens with many sleeping difficulties.

For example, people who have insomnia will often start worrying that they won’t be able to get to sleep. This worrying then becomes the thing that causes their insomnia, even if the original cause has long gone.

So in the same way if you worry about hypnic jerks you may start to get less sleep and become more fatigued. Being fatigued is thought to contribute to the frequency of hypnic jerks, and so it’s more likely you’ll experience them.

You now know that a hypnic jerk is not dangerous, and that many people experience them. So hopefully you can start to relax about them and not go to bed thinking about them.

Readers’ ideas, tips and techniques to cure hypnic jerks

If you look below you’ll see a vast number of comments from previous readers, many of whom have offered their own ideas on what can make hypnic jerks better or worse.

First of all, I’d like to acknowledge and thank everyone for such detailed comments and for sharing your thoughts.

Secondly, I’m going to start a list of ideas which people have provided. Please note that many of these have no evidence to back them up. It’s simply a list of some things which other people say can contribute to hypnic jerks or improve them.

  • Magnesium supplements have been helpful for many readers, as has rubbing Magnesium oils or transdermal Magnesium into the area where you most commonly twitch. One suggestion was to get a blood test to check if you have a deficiency. On reader reported that after several months of taking 2 x 500mg magnesium citrate supplements every day, the hypnic jerks reduced significantly.
  • Continuing with the theme of hypnic jerks being made worse by a mineral deficiency, it’s important to assess your current diet. Try to have a healthy, balanced diet. Eat less sugary and salty foods, and eat plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables.
  • Don’t stress about it, as worrying about it makes it worse.
  • Try to deal with major stress in your life – many people say they’re worse when they feel stressed.
  • If you’re someone who suffers from anxiety, take steps to tackle this in general, as this may help reduce the hypnic jerks.
  • Drink Cayenne pepper tea (I suggest doing some research into this online first).
  • Try to see the funny side! Many readers have said that they just laugh them off.
  • Try acupuncture.
  • Make sure you get enough Calcium in your normal diet, or take supplements.
  • Stop working out for a while if you’re doing strenuous exercise and see if it improves.
  • Don’t drink alcohol, coffee or energy drinks for a week and see if it improves.
  • Try to see them as a sign that you must be falling asleep, and that it’s a positive thing as you know you’ll soon be asleep.
  • Talk to your doctor about any medication you’re on, including over-the-counter sleep aids to check if any could be increasing the frequency or strength of your hypnic jerks.
  • In addition to the above, check that medication you’re taking doesn’t have a side-effect of myoclonus – a surprising amount do.
  • Sleep aids and allergy medication containing the anti-histamine Diphenhydramine can sometimes cause twitching. Try stopping them temporarily if you use them regularly.
  • Try taking electrolyte pills or solutions which athletes use and are also given for fluid loss.
  • Try to sleep in a different position from your back – one suggestion was that the fetal position can help.
  • Don’t go to bed late at night.
  • In terms of prescription medication, some people say Clonazepam has helped them (benzodiazepines are not a long-term solution though).
  • Film yourself sleeping or use a sleep monitor. One reader said he discovered through doing this that he was snoring, and that the hypnic jerks occurred while he was snoring heavily.
  • Some female readers in particular feel that it can be connected to hormonal changes.
  • Ask for a referral to a sleep clinic if you’re able to and it’s particularly troubling.
  • Ensure you have a quiet sleeping environment, as it could be a sudden noise which startles you awake.
  • Stay hydrated by drinking plenty of water during the day.
  • If you’re being bothered by them repeatedly, get up and do something relaxing for 10-20 minutes, then try to sleep again.
  • Have a light snack before bed. And if they’re occurring repeatedly, get up and have a light snack.
  • Have a warm shower before bed, then do relaxation exercises before getting into bed or even while in bed.
  • If you do exercise, it could be excess lactic acid contributing to hypnic jerks. So try looking into ways to reduce the lactic acid, and don’t do heavy exercise in the 3 to 4 hours before bed.

Once again, a big thanks to everyone who took the time to contribute to this list of ideas to try. I know many future readers will appreciate having so many possible options to consider.

And hopefully it will inspire them to continue adding more ideas in the future. If you do have any other ideas, or found any of the above helpful, feel free to let us know in the comments below.

Your views

There isn’t much research published about hypnic jerks, mainly because it’s thought to be harmless. So I’m interested to know what your experience is.

How often do you have them? What seems to make them worse or more frequent? What do you find helps to reduce them?

Please share your experiences in the comments box below and help out other readers with your ideas and theories. And if you just want a place to express what you’ve been going through, then you’re most welcome to do so here.

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643 CommentsLeave a comment

  • I have had these since I was a child. It is always the same dream, I am stepping off a curb and think I am falling. Now that I am retired it takes me longer to go to sleep and they are less frequent, maybe once a month instead of every other night.

  • The explanations and comments have opened a window for me but my experiences happen during my waken hours for example ,After a good nights sleep and a light breakfast while reading a newspaper or my iPad I will almost take off literally i actually bounce off my seat arms akimbo newspaper flying through the air .Surely this is not quite the same as examples that have been described cheers Don

    • Hi Don
      Thanks for your comment. It would be the same, but only if you’re falling asleep just as it happens. But if you’re wide awake, then it wouldn’t be a hypnic jerks. It might be a muscular spasm of a similar nature, but I can’t help with that one I’m afraid. Perhaps check in with your doctor for some advice and see what they come up with.
      Regards
      Ethan

  • I have recently started to have these Jerks almost every night and even find myself having slight ones while awake.
    This is now causing me to worry thus causing me to have them more
    I find they are worse if I think about them or I am trying to not fall asleep.
    If I just give in to the sleep and go to bed early rather than sit up watching TV and nodding off I am.much better

  • Sorry! this turned into an essay more than a comment!
    I first noticed I was having hypnic jerks in my thirties ( I’m in my sixties now) but I had no idea what they were — there was no internet then! In my attempts to find out what the heck was happening I made them worse because I got more and more anxious. Hypochondriac that I was I had 8 medical books at the time but none informed me so I went to my GP. He sent me for heart tests, allergy tests and blood tests. It was the allergist who asked “what are you anxious about?” And I said “nothing! I am only anxious about why I am getting anxious!” (Which wasn’t really true–I had 5 kids and a lousy marriage) I wound up being prescribed a tranquilizer which put me into a clinical depression and thus began years of panic disorder, GAD diagnosis, and two nervous breakdowns but never did anyone define “hypnic jerks”. One day, a few years ago, I googled “jerking awake as you sleep” and was directed to Dr Andrew Weil’s website where I finally found out “they had a name”! I knew they must — I couldn’t be the only person who ever had them — but I had described them to several doctors and non had ever named them or explained them to me. Dr Weil also mentioned that most people experience them as a sensation of falling and I that gave me an epiphany. I did NOT experience them as a falling sensation at all. I experienced them as a DYING sensation. I would sometimes jerk right to a sitting position with the only thought in my head being “oh I’m DYING!” Or less dramatically I would still be lying down and think “hm…I’m dying”. But always dying. And I think that’s why I got so worked up about them thirty years ago. About ten years ago I had a terrible case of chronic insomnia and the hypnic jerks played a big role in it because every time I tried to sleep I was jerked awake and all the relaxation techniques and breathing exercises I’d learned by then didn’t work at all. I ended up in the hospital feeling suicidal. But I did get onto a proper medication then so that was good. I don’t know why I experience hypnic jerks with a “dying sensation” instead of a falling one but I joked with my friend that perhaps I fell to my death in a past life. I try not to let them bother me anymore and just say “oops, I must be over stressed” to myself but sometimes I still have trouble getting back to sleep after they’ve woken me.

  • I suffer various sleep problems ; Nocturnal epilepsy during adolescence. I think I was self medicating with phenergan for insomnia which I now think caused restless leg syndrome. Others have found the same. There does not appear to be a connection to hypnic jerks though but I have stopped taking phenergan.

  • Hi! I’m not sure if this is entirely relevant, but in my experience, exploding head syndrome leads to hypnic jerks, then hypnic jerks lead to what I THINK (but I’m not 100% sure because I’ve read up on it and my symptoms are slightly off from the standard ones) is sleep paralysis. It’s always gone this way, so I wonder if stress has something to do with it? When I’m woken up suddenly by an imaginary noise (which usually begins with auditory hallucinations), I know that I’m going to experience hypnic jerks so I start to panic. Then when I have hypnic jerks, I start to panic even more because I know sleep paralysis is coming. I’ve considered seeing a doctor about narcolepsy, since I have some other symptoms of that, but when everything seems so stress induced, I’m not entirely sure if there’s a medical explanation? This had only happened once before I started taking Risperdal, multiple times a week while I was on Risperdal, and now that I’ve been off of it for about 2 years, it happens maybe once or twice a month. I can’t really describe the feeling of the hypnic jerks as anything other than what I would imagine a heart attack or seizure to feel like, but as I’ve never experienced either, I can’t say for sure.

    • Hi Claire
      Thanks for your comment. I think for some people there’s definitely some kind of relationship between the sleep disorders you mention, at least the EHS and hypnic jerks anyway it seems from reading comments. As for the risperdal, many previous readers have also noted that they’ve found a medication makes their sleep problems worse. And I think if you feel it would provide you with some reassurance, there’s no harm In my opinion, visiting your doctor to get checked out.
      Regards
      Ethan

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