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Maybe you’ve had a rough day and are looking forward to cozying up in bed. As you blissfully doze off, though, you’re suddenly woken up by a sensation of your arms and legs jerking. You’re awake again and, in your sleepy haze, wondering what just happened.
“This is called a hypnic jerk, or a sleep start,” Raj Dasgupta, MD, an assistant professor of clinical medicine at Keck Medicine of USC in Los Angeles, California, tells LIVESTRONG.com. “As you’re falling asleep, you get this feeling like a jolt of electricity.”
It’s not a seizure, and it’s a totally benign occurrence. And it’s common, too — up to 70 percent of people experience hypnic jerks (which are sometimes called hypnagogic jerks). You might also get the impression that you’re falling as you have them.
While they’re nothing to worry about, they can serve as a clue that something’s off with your lifestyle or that you could use a little self-care. Here’s what might be going on:
1. You’re Sleep-Deprived
When it comes to hypnic jerks, sleep deprivation is the most common cause, Dr. Dasgupta says. “This might be that you’re not getting a good quantity or quality of sleep,” he explains.
Poor quality sleep means you’re not getting the deeper REM stage of sleep that’s restorative. How can you tell? Despite being in bed — seemingly sleeping — for the seven to nine hours recommended by the National Sleep Foundation, you might wake up feeling unrefreshed and be sleepy during the day.
To address sleep deprivation, make sure you’re giving yourself enough time in bed in order to get the minimum seven hours — set a “go-to-bed” timer if it helps to remind you. Sleep hygiene, such as having time before bed for relaxing activities and staying away from screens (yes, that includes scrolling on your phone), is also important for sleep quality, Dr. Dasgupta says.
2. You’re Stressed
Mental and emotional stress can also trigger a sleep start.
3. You’re Over-Caffeinated
Stimulants, such as caffeine and nicotine, are also associated with hypnic jerks, Dr. Dasgupta says. And it’s no surprise that sleep deprivation and caffeine consumption can go hand in hand.
4. You Have Sleep Apnea
Because hypnic jerks happen during the transition between wake and sleep, they may be more likely to occur if you have sleep apnea, a condition marked by brief pauses in breathing throughout the night, which causes multiple arousals and awakenings, Dr. Dasgupta explains.
Sleep Starts vs. Restless Legs Syndrome
Hypnic jerks are very different from conditions like restless legs syndrome (RLS). “RLS is not a sleep disorder, but it’s a disorder that prevents you from sleeping,” Dr. Dasgupta explains.
Classic symptoms of RLS include uncomfortable sensations in your legs when going to bed that are usually relieved by stretching or moving your legs. RLS can affect sleep by keeping you awake and contributing to insomnia.