Experts Corner

Why do we Twitch in our Sleep?

October 7, 2022   By Clarisa Mcdonald

Have you ever experienced that moment where you’re just about to fall asleep, but then you feel like you’re falling from a great height or that you’re about to be hit by something? Then you feel a sudden twitch or jerk in your body and wake up confused and disoriented. If so, you’re not alone, and there’s a name for it!

Hypnic jerks are the body’s automatic and involuntary response to stimuli like certain dreams and in some cases, caused by certain medical conditions or underlying sleep disorders.

Studies show that around 60-70% of people experience these kinds of muscle movements or twitches on any given night, usually when falling asleep. This may not be anything more than an engaging dream, but in some cases is evidence of sleep problems.

Some neurology experts theorise that muscle spasms of this kind are caused by external stimuli like noise and light sources, trapping you in the transition between wakefulness and sleep.

Hypnic jerks (also known as sleep myoclonus, hypnagogic jerks or sleep starts) can also occur due to a variety of factors that have nothing to do with sleep.

What Causes Sleep Myoclonus? 

Sleep myoclonus (hypnic jerks) are often characterised by involuntary muscle twitches, often felt during the earliest stages of sleep. Most people experience this in some way, even the healthy ones.

Experts in psychiatry theorise that the twitches are a side effect of the evolutionary relationship between early homo sapiens. Sleep experts suggest that muscle contractions of this kind are related to dreams, especially when in the rapid eye movement (REM) stage of sleep. Myoclonus or body twitches are not usually observed in deep sleep or during the non-rem sleep cycle.

Anxiety and stress are believed to be a cause of jerks and twitches while sleeping, with sleep scientists attributing the increase in anxiety as a direct cause of involuntary muscle movement. In extreme cases, this can lead to sleep deprivation.

Speaking of sleep deprivation, lack of adequate sleep and poor sleep hygiene may also lead to muscle twitches. Experts say that lack of sleep may result in the body receiving less rest, which in turn leads to restless nights.

Another factor to consider is your caffeine intake. Studies suggest that excessive consumption of coffee and other caffeinated beverages can lead to increased stimulation of the nervous system, which subsequently aggravates muscle movement while sleeping. Excess caffeine intake close to bedtime can also affect your sleep-wake cycle which in turn can cause involuntary muscle contractions or body twitches during sleep.

One other factor for twitches in your sleep is that you might be suffering from restless legs syndrome or periodic limb movement.  One study estimated that 5-15% of Australians experience RLS. While its triggers are unknown, one known side effect is an involuntary movement.

Are you a gym rat? A possible cause of hypnic twitches during sleep might be a late-night exercise session as joints and muscles are stressed when they should be loose and relaxed. Keep your physical activities far away from your bedtime.

How to Avoid or Mitigate Hypnic Jerks

So now that we know the possible triggers of sleep twitches, let’s look at ways to address them.

If you’re experiencing hypnagogic jerks, it is possible that it’s caused by an underlying medical condition affecting the nervous system like epilepsy, Parkinson’s disease or spinal cord seizures. 

Going to see a sleep specialist can also be a good way to prevent or minimise sleep starts, as they can help you get to its root cause and how to properly solve it.

Seeing that muscle spasms may be a sign of inadequate rest, having a good bedtime routine might also do the trick. It leads to better sleep which in turn means enough relaxation for both body and mind. Sleeping on quality mattresses and pillows will do wonders for your sleep.

Practising good sleep habits and proper sleep hygiene also comes into play in getting better sleep. Try to darken your room, eliminate noise, and sleep at a cooler temperature, you can also include meditation and breathing exercises as part of your sleep routine to better calm down your nerves and lower your heart rate before you doze off.

Watching what you eat is also a great way to help reduce muscle twitches while sleeping. Cutting down on coffee and caffeine while incorporating vitamins and healthier options in your diet will do wonders. Speak to a health professional before adding any supplements to your diet. 

Out Like a Light

While sleep starts and twitches can be a minor inconvenience, they can become a serious problem when it persists and threatens your quality of sleep. They say prevention is better than cure and if it starts to become a bother, you should start paying attention.

As discussed, hypnic jerks aren’t always bad. Maybe it’s just your body reacting to your dream or even a gentle reminder to take it easy sometimes. Cheers and good night!

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