Hypnic Jerks: How To Avoid Waking With A Jolt

cartoon of a man having a falling sensation durning hypnic jerks

Have you ever woken up with a sudden jolt just as you were falling asleep? Maybe it felt like an arm or leg had an involuntary spasm?

Perhaps you’ve even woken up feeling like you were falling, or with a flash of light or loud noise. If this sounds familiar, it could be that that you’ve experienced hypnic jerks.

In most cases, a hypnic jerk or two is a harmless part of the process of falling asleep, and doesn’t mean you have a sleep disorder. But if they regularly disturb your sleep or happen very often, it might help to speak to a medical professional.


A common occurrence

You’re not alone in experiencing this strange sensation at night. Italian researchers suggest that between 60% and 70% of people experience hypnic jerks at some point in their lives – both men and women, and of all ages.

hypnic jerks infographic

I regularly have hypnic jerks myself – especially when I’m extremely tired or stressed. I’ve also noticed that if I train hard in the gym late in the evening, they seem to happen more often and the movements are more pronounced.

Personally, I don’t worry about them, and see them as a sign that some much needed sleep is just around the corner.

Different names

If you research online about hypnic jerks, it’s worth bearing in mind that they are sometimes referred to by different names:

  • Sleep starts.
  • Night starts.
  • Sleep jerks.
  • Hypnagogic jerk.
  • Myoclonic jerks (myoclonus is an involuntary muscle twitch – hiccups are another harmless example).

What are hypnic jerks?

Hypnic jerks are the sudden involuntary twitching of one or more muscles when you’re falling asleep. The International Classification of Sleep Disorders manual describes them as follows:

Sleep starts, also known as hypnic jerks, are sudden, brief, simultaneous contractions of the body or one or more body segments occurring at sleep onset. Sleep starts (or hypnic jerks) usually consist of a single contraction that often affects the body asymmetrically. The jerks may be either spontaneous or induced by stimuli.

So the fact that they often occur asymmetrically explains why it might feel that just one arm or leg jolts.

They can occur independently or in response to external stimuli in the bedroom, such as your partner moving or external noise.

Symptoms

The most common symptom is the sudden jolting sensation of one or more limbs. However, some people might also experience the following:

  • The feeling of falling.
  • A sensation of pain or tingling.
  • Hearing a sudden noise, such as an explosion. This could also be what’s known as exploding head syndrome.
  • Flashing or unusual lights.
  • Hallucinations.

In addition, some people might notice a physiological response, such as faster heartbeat or breathing, and sweating.


Reader survey results

Back in 2014, I conducted a short survey for readers to share their experience of sleep starts. The results will be biased because people voting were already searching for information about the topic.

But with thousands of people participating, the results still provide some interesting insights.

1. Frequency

In the chart below you can see how often voters experienced hypnic jerks. It’s interesting to note that many readers had them on a daily basis.

chart of poll results into how frequently people have hypnic jerks

2. How they affect your sleep

Question 2 shows that many people are able to sleep well after an episode. And that’s in line with the general medical advice – try not to stress about them, and go back to sleep.

chart showing poll results about how hypnic jerks affect people's sleep

3. The role of stress and anxiety

The final question shows that many people feel stress or anxiety makes their hypnic jerks worse. This is also a factor which appears many times in the comments below.

So it could be that tackling stress or anxiety in your life is a good idea if it’s relevant to you.

chart of the poll results for how much people think stress or anxiety make hypnic jerks worse for them

What causes hypnic jerks?

As is often the case in the complex world of sleep, the exact cause still isn’t completely understood.

The International Classification of Sleep Disorders manual offers this technical explanation:

Hypnic jerks are hypothetically caused by sudden descending volleys originating in the brainstem reticular formation activated by the system instability at the transition between wake and sleep.

Or in layman’s terms, your brain and body are briefly a little bit out of sync as you relax and go from being awake to being asleep.

I regularly check for new research into hypnic jerks, and there has been very little published in the last few years. Since it’s historically been seen as benign, it doesn’t attract much attention and research. For that reason, there isn’t a clearer explanation as to exactly why it happens.

Researchers in 2018, for example, say that “the origin and physiology of hypnic jerks remain enigmatic.”

Factors that can increase the frequency and severity of hypnic jerks

Although the exact cause is still up for debate, sleep experts do suggest factors that might increase the severity or likelihood of them happening:

  • Excessive caffeine or other stimulants, such as nicotine or drugs.
  • Anxiety or stress.
  • Intense physical work or exercise.
  • Sleep deprivation due to sleep disturbance or poor sleep habits.
infographic about factors that can cause hypnic jerks

Is it caused by another condition?

A review of hypnic jerks literature by researchers at the University of Alabama raised an important point: hypnic jerks could in some cases be a characteristic of another condition.

Some of the possibilities they suggest include:

  • Nocturnal seizures.
  • Non-epileptic seizures.
  • Parasomnias.
  • Hyperekplexia.
  • Restless legs syndrome.
  • Periodic limb movements in sleep.
  • Excessive fragmentary myoclonus.
  • Psychiatric diagnosis.

In addition, Italian researchers in 2016 found that hypnic jerks are common in people with Parkinsonism. The Alabama team also suggested it could be helpful in diagnosing the condition.

Finally, don’t confuse sudden wakings from hypnic jerks with sleep apnea. If you, or someone you know, wakes suddenly gasping for breath, this should be discussed with a doctor.


Treatment for hypnic jerks

Do you need to see a doctor?

Most sleep experts advise that hypnic jerks are in most cases nothing to worry about. Try not to dwell on them, relax and go back to sleep again.

However, if you have them regularly and/or severely, you might want to raise it with your primary care doctor. If they think it’s a sign of another disorder, they might ask you to do a sleep study or further tests.

They might also offer to prescribe medication to reduce the frequency and give you advice about adopting more healthy sleep habits.

How can you stop hypnic jerks?

It might not be possible to totally stop them from happening. Accepting them as normal and harmless is perhaps your best option if they aren’t severe.

However, the following self-help ideas might help:

  • Cut down on caffeine, nicotine and other stimulants – especially in the evening.
  • Reduce how much intense work or exercise you do in the evening. Do exercise in the morning or afternoon instead.
  • Eat a balanced, healthy diet.
  • Use a comfortable mattress and bedding.
  • Sleep in a comfortable position.
  • If you suffer from anxiety or stress, do relaxation exercises in bed. One simple breathing exercise is to inhale for a count of 4, hold for 4, then exhale for a count of 4.
  • Try not to allow yourself to get too tired. You may understandably have a busy and tiring lifestyle. But it’s important to give yourself enough time to sleep well.

Avoid the vicious cycle of worry

Hypnic jerks can trigger a vicious cycle of worry if you become fixated on them.

If you worry about hypnic jerks, you might start to get less sleep and become more fatigued. But both anxiety and fatigue are thought to contribute to the frequency of hypnic jerks, and so a vicious cycle begins.

The key is not to allow the occasional sleep start to disrupt your sleep any more than it has to. Again, try to relax, forget about it and go back to sleep.

photo of a man looking anxious in bed

Readers’ tips for coping with hypnic jerks

In the comments below, many readers have offered suggestions for reducing their hypnic jerks. So I’ve compiled a list of the most common and interesting ideas.

These don’t all have medical backing, so please take them with a pinch of salt. But you might find the ideas useful if nothing else has helped.

  • Try to see the funny side. I do this myself, and think it’s a great way to cope with them if they are particularly strong ones.
  • Magnesium supplements have been helpful for some 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.
  • Make sure you get enough calcium in your normal diet, or take supplements.
  • Assess your current diet. Make sure it’s healthy and balanced. Eat less sugary and salty foods. Eat plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables.
  • If you follow a special diet, such as being vegan, pay particular attention to your vitamin and mineral intake, such as the B vitamins. Ensure your diet includes the right quantity, and preferably get your B vitamins through food rather than supplements if possible.
  • Don’t drink alcohol, coffee or energy drinks for a week and see if it improves.
  • Don’t stress about it, as worrying makes it worse.
  • Try to properly deal with any major source of stress in your life.
  • If you suffer from anxiety, take steps to tackle this in your daily life.
  • Drink cayenne pepper tea (I suggest doing some research into this first).
  • Try acupuncture.
  • Stop doing very intense exercise for a week and see if it improves.
  • Try to see them as a sign that you must be falling asleep. So it’s a positive thing as you know you’ll soon be asleep.
  • Ask your doctor if any medication you take could be causing it.
  • Check if medication you’re taking has the side effects of myoclonus – a surprising amount do.
  • Stop taking sleep aids or allergy medication containing antihistamines, which might cause twitches.
  • 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.
  • Film yourself sleeping or use a sleep tracker. 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 feel that it can be connected to hormonal changes.
  • Ask for a referral to a sleep clinic if it’s particularly troubling.
  • Ensure you have a quiet sleeping environment. It could be a sudden noise which startles you awake.
  • Stay hydrated.
  • 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 occur repeatedly, get up and have a light snack.
  • Have a warm shower before bed. Then do relaxation exercises before getting into bed or 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.
  • Try apple cider vinegar. It’s used as a hiccup remedy, so might help with hypnic jerks too.

Your views

It’s always interesting to hear your experiences, and I know many readers have benefited from reading the stories and advice of others.

So please keep your comments, tips and theories coming. And if you have any practical ideas for dealing with hypnic jerks, I’ll continue to add them to the list.

1,133 thoughts on “Hypnic Jerks: How To Avoid Waking With A Jolt”

  1. I’ve been having these off and on for a few years now. Just as I drift off to sleep, I suddenly jolt awake with a sudden somewhat painful jolt in my chest/heart. It can be terrifying. Sometimes after I jolt I also hallucinate for a second.
    When they first started, the horrible feeling would be in my head, however now it seems to have moved to my chest.

  2. I’m really glad to have found this site! I just started having hypnic jerks recently; and felt terrified, just like some others have mentioned. I just didn’t know what was going on. My doctor told me she thinks it is this, and I am trying deep breathing at night, with the help of a meditation app. It does help soothe the jerks, even though it’s hard to breathe at first because I’m anxious about going to sleep. When I awaken, I put it back on. I got calcium and magnesium to try as well. Take care everyone ❤️

  3. Hi All. These jerks/jolts/ spasms I get in the center of my chest just before I fall asleep up to 20 times are getting more frequent and violent is the only way I can explain it. I also get them in my throat, but more so in my chest. It’s like a strong contraction/spasm. A lot of the time I jolt up out of bed yelling in fear. It doesn’t hurt but after a bad night which is many of late, I feel bruised in the center of my chest. I go to work tired & then scared to go to bed. They started many years ago but never to this extent. When they started I was on an antidepressant & I also had “brain snaps” when sleeping. I stopped the antidepressants due to serotonin syndrome, it stopped the brain snaps but not the contractions. I have done so much reading up on these jerks, they are classed as a phenomenon. My doc suggested I take Neurontin/ gabapentin which I didn’t want to take as I would like to treat the cause & not the symptom. It annoys me no doc knows what it is. So tonight I will start Neurontin as I am at my wit’s end as when they happen I feel like I am about to die & I am desperate for a pleasant sleep. Will let you know how the meds go.

  4. I’m so glad to have found this site. I have only just started having these, my experience is similar to what several people have posted, that as soon as I feel I am drifting to sleep, I get jerked awake. My jerks can take slightly different forms, sometimes it’s a muscle twitch in my jaw, foot, arm etc, sometimes it feels more like a mild full body jerk associated with a slight feeling of alarm, but whatever, they all immediately jerk me back to wakefulness. Sometimes it happens all night, sometimes I finally manage to get to sleep sometime around 4-5am. I was terrified having never experienced this before (I’m 45), but finding that it’s actually not that uncommon and that there are some suggested remedies that other people have found work for them, is a relief. I’m hoping that the reduction in stress from that, along with drinking plenty of water and trying to sleep on the side rather than back, will help tonight, and if not I will move on to some of the other suggestions. Thanks and best wishes to you all.

  5. I had it mine 2 months ago after taking an SSRI. Doctor thought I was having anxiety. Stop cold turkey. I took Klonopin for 2 months and melatonin (natural brand) and this has subsided. One week ago I wean Klonopin to .25 and all was going well. Then decided to take a htp5 supplement and it started the cycle again. Damn. I have up my dose to 1.25mg Klonopin since and down it to 1mg for 2 days. Apparently no jerk at all the whole night. Last night took 0.75mg, jerk only once, and could sleep.

    I guess I would not mess with my serotonin anymore.

    Had hypnic jerks when I was young and also sleep paralysis. I also had insomnia. I think it’s a cycle.

    I have since improved my stamina by considering TCM too and it has helped a bit. I was very weak and stresses out 4 months ago. Was shivering and having cold sweats.. the last few months I have worked on the health and helps a bit.

    If you are weak and worried, you will not be doing yourself any favour in surviving this.

    I think melatonin has sort of numb the jerking for me. I believe.. so good luck guys.. always look at the bright side, at least you don’t get anything cancerous.

    By the way, i am not sure. I get jerking as if my heart got struck. And then I could feel as if water is flowing through my brain.. not sure if that’s brain zap or hypnic jerk.. damn.. that ssris are really crap.

  6. Thanks a lot for this website. This is the only positive site about this topic that actually helps people in the entire google. You are doing a lot of social service by organizing it this way and giving strength to people experiencing these sleep issues. You are a hero !!

  7. Hi guys,

    Anybody considered modafinil? If you get tired or sleepy during the day, it will increase the probability of getting jerky at night. Modafinil reduces tiredness during the day and should reduce the possibility of getting the jerks. Any comments?

  8. I’ve experienced this from time to time throughout my life but the last week has been hell. All of a sudden, *every* single time I start to fade off into sleep, my mind and/or body snaps myself back into consciousness. It started last week when I woke myself up snoring a few times in one night. Ever since then, my mind will not let me sleep and jerks me awake anytime I start to fall asleep. It’s almost as if my mind is super paranoid and anxious that I’ll start snoring so it won’t let me totally fall asleep. I don’t feel like I necessarily have trouble falling asleep, it’s just every time I start to the hypnic jerk happens. I’m not sure if it’s sleep apnea because I’m never gasping for air. Sometimes it’s a physical thing, sometimes it’s like my brain just says NOPE. It can be 3-4 times in 1 minute that I start fading off into unconsciousness and boom, boom, boom, NOPE NOPE NOPE. There are a few things that have changed in my life. A stressful family event happened about 6 weeks ago that I haven’t dealt with. Specifically, I haven’t talked to the person who is the cause but I don’t see how it could just start affecting me now. I started working out 2 weeks ago but I never work out past 5 pm. I don’t drink caffeine ever. I only take B complex and vitamin D in the morning due to a blood test that showed a deficiency. I drink 2 sometimes 3 nights a week but I’ve been doing that forever with no problems. It’s only been a week and I’m now crying in the middle of the night because it’s so frustrating. I used to have vivid dreams and could easily sleep 9 hours. I made a doctors appointment next week, I hope it helps.

  9. I can suffer from these up to 10 or 15 times a night buy I’ve worked out that often it occurs if I’m dehydrated. If I have plenty of water during the day they can disappear all together. If I drink too much alcohol it can make it really bad.

    1. It has to do with too much salt intake I think. That dehydrates you. And it lowers potassium which is correlated to muscles.
      Last night I took for the first time in months half a bag of potato chips (125 gram), loved it, but at night the jerks came again and they were away for weeks now. I’m already on a low salt diet because I used to have restless legs and that is also triggered by too much salt. Most people don’t know they have too much salt in their diet because it is added in everything. Especially Americans are having a very bad diet with too much processed food and too much salt.

  10. Solution (for me); take 2 paracetamol at night. Somehow it relaxes the nervous system which is responsible for the hypnotic jerks. I think they are extremely stress-related. I got them badly in a time of high stress and being awake all night because the jerks keep you awake every time you start falling asleep doesn’t help. In the end, you get scared going to bed.
    The first night I took the paracetamol I felt already fewer jerks and the second night I finally did have a good night’s sleep. The first weeks the jerks did still happen but to a lesser extent and less severe. Now after 3 weeks I don’t have them anymore.

    I take 4 days paracetamol and then stop for 3 days so I don’t get too attached or addicted (don’t know if paracetamol is addictive).

    Someone else mentioned this earlier here on the comments as a relief.

    And since I found out that paracetamol is a great general sleep aid, many people I mention it too, say they use it also as a sleep aid. Pity it is not widely known, it might be a solution for so many people.

    Don’t take anti-histamines (Tylenol has it in it) or antidepressants, they can make the jerks worse.

    1. The hypnic jerks happened to me out of the blue. It started with a few rough nights of sleep and slowly progressed to where my body would jolt me awake just as I was falling asleep. It was miserable and caused me to enter an almost perpetual state of panic.

      I read this and started taking 2 Paracetamol (or two extra strength Tylenol in America, 1000 mg in total) before bedtime (I also began taking two Magnesium tablets, 200mg in total).

      I noticed an improvement in the jerks after the first night. I’ve been on this regimen for 4 nights and now the jerks are next to none. I’m finally able to sleep through the night.

      Deep breathing techniques will also help calm the central nervous system and get your body out of the “flight or flight” mode that makes this worse. Just remember that this will go away. It’s not permanent.

  11. I’m 9 weeks postpartum and it started while I was in the hospital due to pre-eclampsia. I was on magnesium drip when I experienced the first hypnic jerk. I mentioned that to the midwife and she wasn’t concerned at all. I have an anxiety disorder and panic attacks. Could be related to that.
    But I’ve been getting it every night since that night at the hospital and it really bothers me.
    So I decided to check it w a neurologist. He sent me for an EEG. Waiting for the results.

  12. I have extremely terrible sleep Jenks upon returning home on a flight from my travels. My sleep jerks are so bad that I’m often not able to sleep through a 5 or 18 hour flight. The people sitting next to me on a plane are often extremely disturbed by my constant convulsions. These sleep jerks have been extremely bad the past two years I’ve traveled. I interpret these occurrences as my body and mind dealing with my experiences. I’m not able to digest my life excursions as I’m traveling on the day to day and trying to constraints be on the move as to get the most out of my trip. I seldom have sleep starts when I’m home doing nothing and when I leave the plane I’m totally fine. I feel that on top of everything else I realize I’m in the air and that is an attributing factor as well. I really wish there was a remedy or medication I can take before traveling home on a flight. This is my take on the matter.

  13. Recently I have them occasionally at some nights didn’t notice much until I googled and got more curious.
    I hope it’s not worth it happens in the start of sleep and eventually goes away.
    I am scared.

  14. I started with low-level anxiety at the beginning of the pandemic, then graduated to full-blown panic attacks, mostly at night. Initially, meditation and mindfulness worked until it didn’t. I have undertaken many hours of talk therapy which has worked well and am left now at night with the hypnic jerk which I am hoping will diminish. Agreed that any medication based on antihistamines are counterproductive and bring on the anxiety attacks. Also Beta Blockers did not work for me, and I see we have the same issues finding decent MDs. Good luck with that.

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