July 27, 2020

Why Do I Feel Like I’m Falling or Twitching As I’m Falling Asleep?

Many things can trigger these sensations

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If you’ve had a falling sensation before going to sleep or noticed your entire body twitch before sleeping, you’re not alone. This is a common occurrence and it’s been estimated that 70% of the population may experience it in some form or another.

Feeling a twitch, jerk or having a falling or floating feeling while sleeping can occur in people who are otherwise healthy. Although these sensations of motion can happen for a variety of reasons, sleep disorders specialist Reena Mehra, MD, MS, explains some likely causes, common triggers and advice on when you should see a doctor.

What causes jerking or falling sensations during sleep?

This phenomenon of involuntary muscle movement while sleeping is called sleep myoclonus (also called hypnic myoclonus) and happens during sleep transitions as you shift from one sleep phase into another.

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The specific muscle movements that occur as a result are also called hypnagogic jerks (or hypnic jerks) and are most likely to happen as you first begin to fall asleep, and during the light stage of sleep immediately following.

One theory is that this stage of sleep is light enough that your brain may misinterpret it as wakefulness — but it also recognizes that your muscles aren’t moving. This leads your brain to send a message to your muscles as a check-in of sorts, to wake them up or keep them active or reactive as a means of protection.

Neurotransmitters are released and carry the message from your nerve cells, attaching to your muscle protein cells. This attachment signals the receiving cells to act in a certain way — specifically in this case, to get your muscles moving.

“The result is likely that feeling of movement, falling or a jerk as your muscles are stimulated,” Dr. Mehra says.

Triggers of that falling feeling and twitching during sleep

“Making sure you’re doing what you can to reduce triggers is important in helping your overall quality of sleep and may help in reducing the frequency of these types of sleep-disturbing movements,” Dr. Mehra says.

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Try to reduce the following to improve your sleep health.

  1. Stress — When you’re stressed, your mind may keep racing and chances are you’re not going to be able to get the rest you need at night. This can affect your sleep cycle and increase the likelihood your sleep will be disrupted. Do what you can to try to reduce your stress level before you hit the hay and you’ll get more restful and nourishing sleep. Plus, be sure to practice good sleep habits before going to bed.
  2. Stimulant drugs and alcohol — Both stimulants and alcohol can prevent you from achieving or fully completing some phases in your sleep cycle, causing you to remain in your lighter stages of sleep and possibly resulting in hypnic jerks or feelings of movement while sleeping or other parasomnias or sleep disorders. Withdrawal from these can also cause trigger muscle reactions.
  3. Caffeine — Consuming too much caffeine has been known to cause your muscles to twitch. It can also affect your sleep cycles in general, keeping you up and preventing you from getting a good night’s sleep. This may contribute to insomnia. Or if you are able to sleep, it can keep you in lighter sleep stages and trigger involuntary muscle movements.
  4. Lack of sleep — When you’re not getting the sleep you need your entire sleep cycle can be affected, which can increase the likelihood you may experience sleep myoclonus.

When movement during sleep means see a doctor

Dr. Meh​ra recommends that if you experience these involuntary movements during your sleep frequently, myoclonus can be a symptom of more complex sleep disorders.

“If these movements regularly keep you awake, give you anxiety about going to bed or become frequent and you have concerns, be sure to see your doctor to explore treatment that’s best for you,” she says.

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