Why do I feel like I’m falling while I’m sleeping? Understanding hypnic jerks

Getting startled out of your sleep can occur due to various reasons

Magazine Desk July 11, 2024

If you've ever felt a sudden falling sensation or noticed your body twitching just before drifting off to sleep, you're not alone.

This phenomenon is quite common, with estimates suggesting that about 70% of people experience it at some point.

These twitches, jerks, or sensations of falling or floating can happen to otherwise healthy individuals. According to sleep disorders specialist Dr. Reena Mehra Director of sleep disorders research in the Sleep Center of the Neurological Institute at Cleveland Clinic, these movements can have various causes. She explains the potential reasons behind these sensations, identifies common triggers, and offers guidance on when it might be necessary to consult a doctor.

Although there is not much to worry about, understanding these factors can help you manage these occurrences and know when to seek professional advice.

Why does this happen?

This phenomenon of involuntary muscle movement during sleep is known as sleep myoclonus, or hypnic myoclonus. It occurs as you transition between different stages of sleep.

The specific muscle movements are referred to as hypnagogic jerks, or hypnic jerks, and they typically happen as you begin to fall asleep and during the light stages of sleep that immediately follow.

One theory suggests that this light stage of sleep can be misinterpreted by your brain as wakefulness. Realising that your muscles aren't moving, your brain might send signals to wake them up or keep them active as a form of protection.

Neurotransmitters carry these signals from nerve cells to muscle cells, prompting them to react. This interaction causes your muscles to move, resulting in the sensation of a twitch, jerk, or the feeling of falling.

Dr. Reena Mehra explains that this reaction is your brain's way of ensuring your muscles stay active or responsive, leading to the common experience of movement or a jerk as you drift into sleep.

Triggers of the Falling Sensation and Twitching During Sleep

Dr. Mehra emphasises the importance of minimising triggers to improve overall sleep quality and reduce the frequency of sleep-disturbing movements. Here are some factors to consider:

  1. Stress

When you're stressed, your mind tends to race, making it difficult to get the rest you need at night. This can disrupt your sleep cycle and increase the chances of experiencing sleep disturbances. To get more restful and rejuvenating sleep, try to manage your stress levels before bedtime. Additionally, practise good sleep habits to improve your overall sleep quality.

  1. Stimulants and Alcohol

Stimulants and alcohol can interfere with your sleep cycle, preventing you from reaching or completing deeper sleep phases. This disruption can keep you in lighter stages of sleep, potentially leading to hypnic jerks, movement sensations, or other sleep disorders. Additionally, withdrawal from these substances can trigger muscle reactions.

  1. Caffeine

Excessive caffeine consumption is known to cause muscle twitching and can disrupt your overall sleep cycles. It can keep you awake, preventing you from getting a good night's rest, and potentially contributing to insomnia. Even if you manage to fall asleep, caffeine can keep you in lighter stages of sleep, triggering involuntary muscle movements.

  1. Sleep Deprivation

When you aren't getting enough sleep, your entire sleep cycle can be disrupted, increasing the chances of experiencing sleep myoclonus.

When to See a Doctor

Dr. Mehra advises that if you frequently experience these involuntary movements during sleep, it could indicate a more complex sleep disorder.

“If these movements regularly keep you awake, cause anxiety about going to bed, or become frequent enough to be a concern, it's important to see a doctor,” she says. “They can help explore the best treatment options for you.”

By addressing these triggers and seeking medical advice when necessary, you can improve your sleep health and reduce the impact of these disruptive movements.


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