Have you ever felt a sudden jerk that woke you up from sleep? Or have you ever had the feeling of being suffocated while trying to fall asleep? You probably have some funny explanation for that. But what if I told you that what you experienced can simply be referred to as a "sleep start" and that about 6-7 in every 10 persons have experienced it too.
Read this article to understand fully what a sleep start is. You would also discover the symptoms, causes, and treatment of sleep starts.
What are Sleep Starts?
Sleep starts are sudden, strong involuntary contractions in body muscles which occur while a person is trying to fall asleep or when he is already deep in sleep.
It is a common, mild physiological phenomenon that has been reported to have occurred in 60-70% of humans. They are usually very brief and can affect the entire body or just one or more parts of the body, especially the arms and legs.
Sleep starts are also referred to as hypnic or hypnagogic jerks. Many people get confused and think these two terms mean the same thing. However, while they are very similar, there is a small difference. Hypnagogic jerks occur when an individual is trying to fall asleep, while hypnic jerks occur upon awakening.
Sometimes sleep starts are mistaken for other syndromes or sleep-related disorders such as sleep paralysis. A deeper study of the patient's symptoms often reveals the difference between sleep starts and those other disorders.
While hypnic jerks are generally harmless since they do not act as immediate threats to your health, they can act as a catalyst to serious health challenges. One way this can happen is by messing up your sleep quality and pattern.
Nothing beats getting a good night's rest to wake up the following morning fully recharged and energized. Sleep starts can mess that up for you. When these sleep jerks become too frequent, it can lead to the fear of falling asleep. Rather than looking forward to it, you start to dread bedtime because you know there's a certain obstacle that awaits.
Hypnagogic jerks can also lead to insomnia, otherwise known as sleepless nights which could lead to a series of other health challenges.
Symptoms of Sleep Starts
There are several variations of sleep start symptoms as different patients have it differently. However, there are a few common symptoms peculiar to this phenomenon.
Sleep starts are almost always accompanied by the following impressions;
- A feeling that you're falling from a scary height.
- Hallucination or a very visual dream.
- A sensory flash across your entire body.
- Feeling of numbness in all or specific parts of your body.
- Mild, shock-like sensations in the chest region
- A mild feeling of suffocation
- Itchy sensations that move from one area to another.
- Sometimes, the inability to move.
- Rapid heartbeat and breathing
The confusing part of these symptoms is that they do not always follow a specific pattern and an individual can experience all or some of the symptoms while some show just one of these and other related symptoms.
Perhaps you have experienced one or more of these symptoms on a particular day and then the next day, the symptoms are different.
Causes of Sleep Starts
There is no specific cause for hypnic jerks. Doctors are still trying to figure out a definite cause. One thing we know for sure is that hypnagogic jerks occur when one part of the brain falls asleep or shuts down faster than other parts while hypnic jerks occur when certain parts of the brain are awake before others.
Several factors contribute to this happening.
High intake of caffeine or other stimulants
Caffeine and other drugs that promote alertness are generally referred to as stimulants. These drugs can be either organic or inorganic. They help you stay awake when you need to. The most common one is coffee. Adenosine is an enzyme in your body that is responsible for drowsiness. Stimulants temporarily block the reception of adenosine which prevents you from falling asleep or even feeling sleepy.
Caffeine and other stimulants are a blessing on nights when you need to stay awake, probably to read for a test. However, excessive intake of stimulants can also ruin you.
Stimulants delay the timing of your body clock which can lead to hypnic or hypnagogic jerks. It always starts with mild insomnia and then progresses into sleep starts.
Prior intense physical work/exercise
An intense physical workout can affect your sleep. Popular opinion states that work or exercise can make you relax and sleep better. This is not false. An adequate amount of work and exercise can help you relax and improve the quality of your sleep. However, if this work is too intense, it can lead to physiological stress which can mess with your hormones including those responsible for sleep.
Inflated blood pressure which is often associated with emotional stress causes wakefulness and alertness even at night while you should be sleeping. Anxiety, a product of emotional stress, keeps your mind preoccupied and busy trying to come up with solutions to pressing issues which can make falling asleep harder to achieve and in turn, lead to sleep starts.
Irregular sleep pattern or sleep deprivation
Many busy people make the mistake of scheduling so they work late into the night and hardly have enough time to sleep. The only sleep they get is random power naps in-between jobs. If this continues for a long time, their brains become affected, and falling asleep when they need to, becomes a problem. Hypnic and hypnagogic jerks find a loophole where they can crawl in.
Treatment and Prevention
Healthy nighttime habits
What you do a few hours before you fall asleep greatly affects your sleep quality. Try to maintain healthy nighttime habits. Put your phone away and try reading a book. Prayer is also helpful if your faith allows it. You can also try sleeping with your lights off.
Unfortunately, no living human can escape both physical and emotional stress. The good news, however, is that there are a lot of helpful ways to release stress. You can try various breathing techniques. Yoga and meditation are also very effective ways to release stress. Sex with a partner or solo can provide you with relaxing hormones.
Cut down caffeine intake
As explained earlier in this article, caffeine and other stimulants can result in low-quality sleep. Cutting down the intake of stimulants will give room for free reception of adenosine which you'll need for healthy sleep.
Sleep starts are not a death sentence. They are a completely normal response your body gives to stress, high caffeine intake, and anxiety and they can be managed by a few helpful lifestyle hacks. If you are concerned about your health because your sleep jerks occur too frequently, feel free to talk to a doctor to get expert advice.