You’re in that blissful moment where your body is giving itself up to sleep, when all of a sudden an arm or leg jolts you awake. You find yourself wrenched from the cusp of dreams and forced back into the waking world. You feel like you’ve just fallen from a great height but when you look around you realise that you are where you should be, in the safety of your bed. That was weird. Scary, even. Nothing to worry about however, you can’t stop wondering what that jolt was.
So what are those annoying twitches?
Well they are called hypnagogic (hypnic for short) jerks or sleep starts and are a physical manifestation of the hidden battle our minds undergo for control as sleep takes hold. These involuntary muscle spasms effect 60 to 70 per cent of us and mainly occur during the hypnogogic state – between being awake and asleep. In those moments, the parts of our body and brain that are still stimulated fight to stave off the sandman. So these twitches are the body’s small victories over a deep and beautifully paralysing kip.
Now I’m sure some of you are wondering why, if this happens mostly when we are about to fall asleep, does it feel like it happens when you’re fully asleep?
Usually we are fully paralysed while we sleep.
Our muscles remain relaxed and still, even during our most exciting dreams. There have even been a couple of experiments carried out where a sleeping person’s eyes are taped open and then a light is shone in them. Amazingly the slumber is so deep that the bright light elicits no reaction. However, some people are plagued by sleep starts in their dreams.
Most commonly, they occur during dreams of falling or passing bright lights.
In some cases, the hypnagogic jolt will force the dreamer awake and they will make a noise as well as a movement. This is usually spurred on by a visual of something scary, like falling from a great height or a near-death experience. In others cases, they will remain asleep and only their unfortunate sleep partner will be aware of it – after taking an arm or leg to the body. (Though I’m sure the injured party will make sure they know in the morning.)
So what causes them?
In most cases, they are nothing to worry about. If one wakes you, while annoying, just turn over and try to fall asleep again.
However, some scientists believe factors such as stress, anxiety, fatigue, caffeine, tobacco and sleep deprivation may increase the frequency of jerks. Stimulant medications such as Adderal or Ritalin may also increase the likelihood of experiencing a sleep start.
Although conclusive research is lacking on the subject, cutting back on the cigarettes and coffee, paired with getting more sleep, should fix most sufferers right up. In no time, you should be able to experience the beauty of heavy lids allowed to close and not reopen till morning.