The best part of the day is plopping into bed and sleeping like a log. It’s the time of the day when you try to set aside all your worries and prepare for a few hours of rest. It can be hard to stop thinking about the stressful events of your day, but once you fall asleep, there should be nothing but sweet dreams ahead of you. Sweet dreams, that is, until you suddenly jerk back awake.
You quickly look around your room, and remember you are safe and sound. For seemingly no reason, your body just forcefully woke you up. Many of us have had this experience, but what is it all about?
The phenomenon is known as a “hypnic jerk.”
It’s also known as a “sleep start” or “night start.” It is a quick muscle reflex whose intensity varies from person to person. Reactions can also be different for different people. Some people don’t even realize they’ve had a hypnic jerk while others may scream while it’s happening.
For years, scientists have been trying to figure out what causes it. and now they’re starting to understand a little more about it. The condition occurs most frequently when people are exhausted and fall asleep quickly.
Many people who experience hypnic jerks report having dreams at the moment they wake up.
In these dreams, people are often falling, jumping, or tripping. Sometimes you may feel like you’ve lost your balance while other times you may feel like you’re falling off a cliff!
Scientists that study sleep disorders are trying to determine what causes this phenomenon. Dr. Carl Bazil M.D. Ph.D., and the director of the Sleep Disorders Center at New York-Presbyterian/Columbia University Medical Center is a sleep expert.
He says that hypnic jerks seem to result from a conflict between the brain system that keeps you awake and the brain system that helps you fall asleep.
Jolting up is usually accompanied by dreams of falling, tripping, maybe even leaning too far back in your office chair. You get the sensation that you’re losing your balance, and you jerk awake.
Michael Breus, Ph.D., a sleep doctor, clinical psychologist, and fellow of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, explains, “We don’t have a great answer to the visual component, but we think it might be the easiest way for the brain to interpret the rush or feeling of falling into sleep too quickly, like a lack of balance if you faint while standing up.” Because these dreams are so individualized, it can be hard to study.
Scientists aren’t sure why you have dreams of falling.
“One of the things that happens as you fall asleep is your muscles relax, but the awake part may still be stimulating enough that it will temporarily overreact and you get this jerk of muscle activity,” he says.
Doctors are still uncertain why you see the images you do when you have a hypnic jerk. Because hypnic jerks are only about as harmful as hiccups, they have not been a high priority research topic. While that is reassuring in some ways, many people would still be glad to know the reason they jerk awake as they are calmly trying to fall asleep!
A hypnic jerk is not the same as a bobbing head.
If you’ve fallen asleep sitting up at your desk or on an airplane, you likely know the feeling of your head suddenly bobbing and waking you up.
This is another natural reaction, but it likely occurs for a different reason than a hypnic jerk. “Your head weighs roughly eight pounds so if it falls over too far, it will bend your air pipe in a way that makes it difficult to breathe. The brain jerks your head back up to straighten the air pipe back out so you can breathe properly,” says Breus.
There are several theories for what causes this phenomenon.
Since hypnic jerks occur naturally as the body falls asleep, many hypothesize that this is just the body preparing for rest. Scientists also believe hypnic jerks can happen when the body doesn’t spend enough time in the first stage of sleep. This is more likely to occur when you are overly tired.
Typically, the first stage of sleep lasts a few minutes. During this time, the body begins breathing more slowly and the heart rate also slows. You are sleeping lightly in this stage but can still easily wake up. When you are exhausted, your body may go through the first stage of sleep too quickly, making your brain think you are dying.
Perhaps this is the fastest way the brain knows how to wake the body up. Anyone who suffers from this condition can tell you that it certainly does the trick. Breus says “It might be a kind of protective mechanism, but we really aren’t sure because it’s difficult to study.”
You could be experiencing hypnic jerks without realizing it.
Even if a hypnic jerk technically wakes you up, you might fall back to sleep so quickly you don’t even remember what happened. It can be difficult to sleep with someone who jerks around in their sleep every night. “I’ve had patients whose hypnic jerks are so frequent and intense that partners have had to move into a separate bed to avoid waking their partner,” Breus says.
Hypnic jerks are more likely to happen when you are sleep deprived, stressed, or intoxicated.
When you are getting enough sleep, either in quantity or quality, you could experience more hypnic jerks. This means not getting between seven and nine hours of sleep or not getting restful sleep.
If you are having disrupted sleep, you may be affected by stress or be drinking too much caffeine. You may even have a sleep disorder such as sleep apnea or insomnia. Drinking alcohol can also increase your chances of having hypnic jerks. Breus confirms this saying, “Alcohol is another huge factor — many people get hypnic jerks after a night of drinking.”
Hypnic jerks aren’t dangerous, but they can keep you awake.
Hypnic jerks can’t hurt you, though your hypnic jerk dreams could trick you into believing otherwise. But Breus says there’s nothing to worry about. “There are no serious consequences, it won’t give you a heart attack or anything — the worst that could happen is you jerk so hard that you fall out of bed,” says Breus.
But for some people who have very strong hypnic jerks all the time, they become apprehensive about falling asleep. In these cases, hypnic jerks can indirectly lead to insomnia.
If you notice them becoming a problem for you, keep track of how often you have them and what has happened to you during the day that could have caused them.
The best cure for getting rid of hypnic jerks is getting on a regular sleep schedule.
Do your best to get seven to nine hours of sleep a night. Even better, try to fall asleep and wake up at the same time every day. This allows your body to fall asleep more slowly.
While sleeping in on the weekends is tempting, it can easily throw off your sleep schedule. You’ll have a harder time getting to sleep in the evenings, and you may not feel rested during the week.
You can also benefit from increasing the quality of your sleep.
If you are sleeping regular hours and you are still having hypnic jerks, you will want to assess the quality of your sleep. Breus uses this advice with his patients, “I suggest eliminating alcohol, reducing caffeine especially closer to bedtime, and trying to get to sleep and wake up at the same time every day.”
If this still doesn’t end the hypnic jerks, you may want to set up an appointment with a sleep specialist. Together, you can talk about your sleeping patterns and figure out what is happening. The specialist will likely address your hypnic jerks as a symptom, not a cause, of your sleep problems.
Your other option is get used to falling off a cliff every once in awhile.
The National Sleep Foundation estimates that about 60 to 70 percent of people have hypnic jerks. That is a whole lot of people who are woken up unexpectedly! If you want to try some other methods to sleep better before calling a specialist, the National Sleep Foundation has some helpful tips for you.
First, as we mentioned, try to stick to a sleep schedule with a consistent bedtime and wake up time. Keep your schedule as consistent as you can, even on the weekends. Your body clock should respond with an expectation of falling asleep at a certain time, and you should start naturally feeling tired.
Second, create a bedtime routine to perform nightly. Do the same relaxing things every night before you fall asleep. Turn off electronics, dim the lights, get your pajamas on, read a good book, and do whatever you need to get yourself ready for bed.
Third, cut out naps if you have a hard time falling asleep at night. While naps are extremely tempting if you’re tired during the day, they could be throwing off your body clock. If you can’t get through the day without a snooze, try a power nap in lieu of a long nap.
The National Sleep Foundation has a few more tips for people having difficulty sleeping.
Next, daily exercise has been shown to help you sleep better at night. Rigorous activity is preferable, but any activity is better than none at all. The time of day shouldn’t matter, as long as it doesn’t interfere with your bedtime.
Additionally, you should take a look at the room you are sleeping in to make sure it is conducive to restful sleep. You want your room to be inviting with calming colors and objects that are soothing to look at. Keep your room free of clutter so you don’t have anything you can trip over in the middle of the night.
The temperature should be between 60 and 67 degrees, and the room should be quiet during sleep time. Try to keep your room as dark as possible, using blackout curtains or eye shades if needed.
If you have a partner that keeps you awake, you may wish to use earplugs or a white noise machine to help you sleep better. Humidifiers and fans have also been shown to create an environment conducive to sleeping.
Finally, sleep on a firm mattress with comfortable pillows. A supportive mattress that is less than 10 years old is recommended. It helps to wash your sheets weekly in warm water to cut down on allergens and dust mites. You’ll also sleep a lot better knowing you’re sleeping in fresh, clean sheets.