Have you ever woken up with a sudden jolt just as you were falling asleep? Maybe it felt like one of your arms or legs had an involuntary spasm?
Perhaps you’ve even woken up feeling like you were falling, or with a flash of light or unexpected 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 transitioning from being awake to asleep. They aren’t usually a sign of a sleep disorder, but if they regularly wake you up in the night or are very severe, it might help to speak to a medical professional.
Even if they aren’t severe, it’s understandable that you might wonder if something is wrong with you if it happens on a regular basis. So in this article, I’ll be discussing some of the current thinking around hypnic jerks, along with lots of practical suggestions for coping with them.
A common occurrence
You’re not the only one whose wayward limbs seem to have a mind of their own at bedtime. Italian researchers suggest that between 60% and 70% of people experience hypnic jerks, both men and women and people of all ages.
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.
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.
The most common symptom is the sudden jolting sensation of one or more limbs. Some people might have other experiences, such as:
- 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.
In addition, it’s possible to have a physiological response, such as a faster heartbeat, increased breathing rate or sweating.
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.
However, in 2020 a clear summary of the current thinking was published on the website sleep.org:
Scientists have identified that myoclonus originates in the brain, either in the cerebral cortex or in the part of the brainstem responsible for your startle response. As for what specifically causes a hypnic jerk to occur, however, scientists remain undecided. It’s possible that during the transition from wakefulness to sleep, the neurotransmitters in these areas become unstable and cause hypnic jerks.
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.
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.
- Restless legs syndrome.
- Periodic limb movements in sleep.
- Excessive fragmentary myoclonus.
- Psychiatric diagnosis.
In addition, the Italian researchers in the 2016 study (see above) 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.
Reader survey results
Way back in 2014, I conducted a short survey for readers to share their experience of sleep starts. The results were biased because people voting were already searching for information about the topic. With thousands of people participating though, the results were still interesting.
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.
2. How they affect your sleep
Here you can see that many people were 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.
3. The role of stress and anxiety
The final question shows that many people felt that stress or anxiety made their hypnic jerks worse. It could be that tackling stress or anxiety in your life is a good idea if it’s relevant to you.
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.
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.
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).
- 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.
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.
For the last two weeks, I’ve experienced a jerk so violent and severe that it feels like I’m going to die in my sleep. What has helped me is an exercise from my physio that was given to me to improve neck mobility, but also seems to stimulate my vagus nerve. Laying on the floor with my head resting on a mostly deflated bender ball. Turn the head to one side as far as it will comfortably go and take 3 deep belly breaths, 5 times each side. As soon as I’m finished the first rep I start yawning uncontrollably until I’m finished and for a few minutes afterwards. Since I’ve been doing this I’ve had much more success with falling asleep.
I started having hypnic jerks in Nov 2019. They are quite severe, I can have them every 20 secs or so. They mainly happen when I wake up in the night and try to go back to sleep or if I have a nap during the day. I keep thinking that there must be something wrong with me for me to be having them so frequently but can’t pinpoint what it is. Alcohol, exercise etc don’t make a difference.
I get hypnic jerks almost every night over and over again. Sometimes I’ll have 30 in a night, or more, and I won’t be able to sleep for hours and hours. What really helps me is electrolytes and water, and if I haven’t eaten enough calories that day they seem to be worse so I will eat a snack and then drink electrolytes and that usually takes them away.
Do you drink water with electrolytes like Propel or Gatorade?
Hi. I usually have these jerks and it is no problem for me. I use the, “awesome I’m about to fall asleep,” technique. I’ve also noticed my partner do it occasionally and I’m just happy for him that he’s getting rest.
But… I just had spinal surgery and now I’m jerking like nothing I have ever experienced. I can’t fall asleep because each jerk is so painful it wakes me up!
Obviously tomorrow I’ll call my doctor and I’ll ask if one of my medicines could be causing this. I was just curious if you’ve ever heard of a relationship between surgery and excessive jerking.
Hi, for years now one or both of my arms fling out just on falling asleep every time I’m about to drift off and jerk myself awake. So for a long time now to combat this, I have to put my hands in my tight-fitting underpants along the side of my legs, like a tight band I guess. And this keeps them still during involuntary movement. And is the only way I can fall asleep.
Did yours resolve? I’m having the same thing after spinal surgery on my neck.
Same here. 13 weeks post ACDF and these jerks just started.
I have these jerks when falling asleep and waking up. I also hear strange noises. Sometimes loud like crashing cymbals and other times nondescript sounds.
My hypnic jerks keep me awake, and I decided to read this article it really doesn’t explain why I can’t sleep.
But thanks anyway for the briefing.
Nice to see others on here as well. I just started having these. Actually had them 2 separate instances and they were gone overnight. But just the last few nights it came back again. The first 2x i believe it was related to strenuous exercising. The feet of my soles hurt like crap. Now this time I think it is due to my lack of blood circulation to my heart then hearing these cracking noises in the structure of the condo started spoofing me. Typically if I am ok with blood levels etc, I have no issues hearing these sounds…I don’t get jolted. My Asian doctor asked if I was scared of something and that made me realize yah that was it.
Hi Ethan, I have been suffering from this for over 2 years. There is Facebook group called “Hypnic jerk/ sleep myoclonus support” where there are 1600 of us sufferers. There’s a lot of information on there and it will be worth you and other sufferers joining the group as it has helped many. Members are working hard towards getting this condition researched by Stanford. Together we can hopefully find a cure and supper each other.
Thanks for sharing that group. There really are a lot of people there!
I had this problem for 10 months and got through it.
What You have to understand that it is not the jerks that prevent you from falling asleep.
It is our brain that is on alert, it scans and examines the slightest sign of a problem and as soon as it sees a small sign (like the jerk which is quite normal and which happens to everyone), the brain says to itself: damned, it’s serious what I have!! and now the stress occurs, which creates even more jerks and now the vicious circle begins!
It is not the jerks that prevents sleep but it is YOURSELF that deliberately creates the jerks because you have unresolved problems deep inside you which accentuate the stress.
It’s your stress that keeps you from sleeping.
In internet forums, we mostly see people complaining. It seems like it develops their egos to be the one who is going to be the worst.
Once the problem is solved, people stop thinking about sharing their experience.
This is why I decided to do it today.
How did it start for me?
I was diagnosed with mild sleep apnea.
I started to think more and more about this problem to the point that when I was falling asleep I asked myself questions such as: “am I going to have sleep apnea tonight?”
once in the middle of the night, I had a jerk that woke me up, and I started to think to myself: “this is because of the sleep apnea”
And from that day on I had these jerks that kept me from sleeping
Sometimes I slept 1 hour a night, sometimes 2 hours, sometimes for two days in a row, I didn’t sleep.
Sometimes I could at last sleep a whole night.
That for 10 months: it was hell
How I solved the problem? I went to see a psychologist, which made me understand that the shaking was not due to my problem of mild apnea but was due to my fear of sleeping
in fact, I had entered a vicious circle.
The fear of sleeping caused the shaking, the shaking prevented me from sleeping, and the lack of sleep caused even more stress which prevented me from sleeping.
I had reached a point, that the simple fact of resting my head on the pillow caused me great anxiety and from the first jerk, the stress became terrible.
Then during the whole day, I was afraid of the next night, and I was anxious all the time. The shrink gave me medication: anxiolytics and antidepressants. It helped me little by little to calm the anxiety and also I did some work on myself, because I had some problems. for example, due to the death of my mother that I had put under the carpet, problems that I had repressed.
I wouldn’t have had these insomnia issues if I hadn’t had these repressed issues.
If we repress problems they emerge one day or another in such and such a form; me it came out in the form of insomnia but for other people it could have come out in the form of serious illness for example.
After a month of therapy with the shrink, I was able to sleep normally again.
I also worked on myself, going to my mother’s grave more often, helping others, being in the present moment without continually thinking about what might happen later.
Without thinking about the past with guilt.
I have started to play more often with my 7 year old son because the children are in the moment.
I try to listen to my wife more.
I try to be less selfish.
I was also interested in spirituality and less in material things, earning money etc. For example audiobooks that can be found on Youtube have helped me a lot. Edgart Tollé, whom I always listen to before going to sleep.
There you have it, I hope my testimony can help other people.
Happy New Year and good psychological and physical health.
Thanks for sharing man, I have the same issues, probably for the same genral reasons, hopefully I can resolve mine without meds.
I have been having similar issues. I have been trying very very hard to get out of the deep dark hole it threw me into. After 20 yrs struggle with sleep and headache, developed stress and anxiety to the point it’s unbearable. Recently I was told I have mild sleep apnea. I got suddenly hopeful about CPAP treatment. After six months delay I received one. Have been using it for about 10 days. Unfortunately, my conditions have gotten worse with daytime sleepiness, headache and stress/anxiety…unending vicious cycle. I wish I could get rid of it like you did.
Thank you so much Vincent this was very encouraging to hear.
Not everyone’s jerks are caused by stress etc. Mine occurs as I fall asleep then cause my sphincters to spasm and cause bile to enter my stomach burning the crap out of it. Mine is caused by spinal stenosis.
I notice eating apples helps a lot. The jerks are very mild and sometimes don’t occur anymore when I sleep. Hope this helps.
I have hypnic jerks in my jaw which causes my mouth to snap closed usually biting my tongue or cheeks. It is painful and takes a few days for the bites to heal. I think I grind my teeth when sleeping. I also clench my mouth closed to avoid the jerks. All this is problematic so I will be talking to my doctor. Hope to find a solution.
Do you eat right before bed or just incorporate into your daily diet?
Does anyone know if having these episodes of jerks is related to blood sugar? I’m having them and I’m trying to find the cause, but it’s really hard to figure out.
I’ve been suffering with hypnotic jerks for a few months now. It all started one night I had sickness and diarrhea. For 3 nights I didn’t sleep. Every time I tried to sleep I would be jolted awake. It was absolute hell.
I was terrified that it would kill me. As my body just wouldn’t let me sleep.
The doctor reluctantly gave me 3 days of sleeping pills, which worked. But I couldn’t stand the thought of being on them long term.
So I decided to go the herbal route. I started with CBD oil 3 drops 5 times a day, a cup of camomile tea and a valerian tablet before bed.
I’m now on 3 drops 3 times a day.
I suffer from General Anxiety Disorder and have been very stressed. Hoping it isn’t a sign of a serious neurological illness. But I am very worried, and have developed a fear of sleep.
In response to the blood sugar. I’ve noticed whenever I eat processed food that contains a lot of sugar I get more jerks. Also when I eat processed meat.
I’ve excluded alcohol and caffeine from my diet.
If I stick to the following lifestyle I don’t get jerks before sleep;
Exercise early in the day
Practice yoga early
I do get hypnic jerks in the morning after waking and trying to fall back asleep. This I’m assuming is through all the herbal remedies wearing off. So usually when I’m awake I get up, as I won’t be able to get back to sleep.
I hope this helps someone.
Thanks Vanessa it helps to know I am not alone. Glad it’s been better. I have been much better with medication for my anxiety. I also have generalized anxiety.