A hypnic jerk, hypnagogic jerk, sleep start, sleep twitch, myoclonic jerk, or night start is an involuntary twitch which occurs when a person is beginning to fall asleep, often causing them to jump and awaken suddenly for a moment. Hypnic jerks are one form of involuntary muscle twitches called myoclonus. Physically, hypnic jerks resemble the "jump" experienced by a person when startled, sometimes accompanied by a falling sensation. Hypnic jerks are associated with a rapid heartbeat, quickened breathing, sweat, and sometimes "a peculiar sensory feeling of 'shock' or 'falling into the void'". A higher occurrence is reported in people with irregular sleep schedules.
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According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine there is a wide range of potential causes, including anxiety, caffeine, stress and strenuous activities in the evening. However, most hypnic jerks occur essentially at random in healthy people.
Another hypothesis is evolutionary, stretching back to our primate ancestors. A researcher at the University of Colorado suggested that a hypnic jerk could be "an archaic reflex to the brain's misinterpretation of muscle relaxation with the onset of sleep as a signal that a sleeping primate is falling out of a tree. The reflex may also have had selective value by having the sleeper readjust or review his or her sleeping position in a nest or on a branch in order to assure that a fall did not occur", but evidence is lacking.
During an epilepsy and intensive care study, the lack of a preceding spike discharge measured on an epilepsy monitoring unit, along with the presence only at sleep onset, helped differentiate hypnic jerks from epileptic myoclonus.
According to a study on sleep disturbances in the Journal of Neural Transmission, a hypnic jerk occurs during the non-rapid eye movement sleep cycle and is an "abrupt muscle action flexing movement, generalized or partial and asymmetric, which may cause arousal, with an illusion of falling". Hypnic jerks are more frequent in childhood with 4 to 7 per hour in the age range from 8 to 12 years old, and they decrease toward 1 or 2 per hour by 65 to 80 years old.
- Medical College of Wisconsin, Sleep: A Dynamic Activity
- National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, Brain Basics: Understanding Sleep
- Why You Sometimes Feel Like You're Falling And Jerk Awake When Trying To Fall Asleep by Lauren F Friedman, Business Insider, May 21, 2014
- Basics of Sleep Behavior: NREM and REM Sleep
- A Case of the Jerks by Kaitlyn Syring, University Daily Kansan, February 28, 2008
- "Why You Sometimes Feel Like You're Falling And Jerk Awake When Trying To Fall Asleep". Retrieved 2016-07-17.
- Fisch, Bruce J. Epilepsy and Intensive Care Monitoring: Principles and Practice. New York: Demos Medical, 2010.
- Askenasy, J. J. M. (2003). "Sleep Disturbances in Parkinsonism" (PDF). Journal of Neural Transmission. Springer-Verlag. 110: 125–50. doi:10.1007/s007020300001.