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What Causes Sleep Twitching?

By Sarah R. LaVergne
Updated May 17, 2024
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The four common causes of sleep twitching are sleep myoclonus, Periodic Limb Movement Disorder (PLMD), Restless Leg Syndrome (RLS) and Rapid Eye Movement (REM) behavior disorder. Sleep twitching can also be referred to as twitching, moving or jerking. The level of movement patients may experience is determined by the disorder that causes the twitching.

Sleep myoclonus is a slight twitching of the muscles involving the fingers, eyes, lips and toes. One symptom of sleep moclonus is the feeling of jerking awake right after falling asleep. This form of myoclonus is not typically life threatening. When sleep myoclonus is present it can be a sign of other sleep disorders such as narcolepsy and sleep apnea.

The cause of sleep myoclonus is the brain overreacting to startling events. This portion of the brain controls movement. Sleep myoclonus is typically found in adult males, and if this is the only disorder they suffer, treatment is generally not necessary. When other sleep disorders are present with sleep myoclonus, tranquilizers can be used to help the patient sleep without interruption.

PLMD, another sleep disorder, can be a major cause of sleep twitching. In PLMD, twitching or jerking movements last for up to 30 seconds at a time and disrupt the sleep pattern of the person suffering the disorder. PLMD patients typically feel tired during the day because of sleep disruption. The twitching is present in the arms, legs and appendages and can occur as slight twitching or massive jerking motions. Some causes of PLMB are iron deficiencies, tumors on the spine, sleep apnea and certain medication.

RLS is a sleep disorder that causes sleep twitching while a person is awake. Once in a resting position, before falling asleep, the legs will feel the need to move, jerk, stretch, kick or even curl up. Typically it is impossible to find enough comfort to fall asleep. RLS causes exhaustion due to lack of sleep which can interfere with job performance and regular lifestyle. Some causes of RLS are anemia, nicotine, alcohol, pregnancy, kidney disease and certain medications.

One more major cause of sleep twitching is REM behavior disorder. During rapid eye movement (REM), a sleeping person is in a state of paralysis. This paralysis keeps dreams from being physically acted out during sleep. REM behavior disorder initiates a suspension of this necessary paralysis. Since the paralysis is nonexistent, the person moves and jerks during the dream cycle.

Some behaviors that may occur when REM behavior disorder is present are yelling, punching, sitting up and jumping out of bed. The person can become violent while sleeping due to this disorder. Middle-aged and elderly people are most often affected by REM behavior disorder.

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Discussion Comments
By Melonlity — On Jan 30, 2014

I always thought Restless Leg Syndrome would be a great name for a band.

Seriously, though, I have always believed some twitching and motion at night is normal. None of us are perfectly still when sleeping.

Still, there's normal movement then there's abnormal movement that may suggest a problem. The solution is not always simple as the author correctly points out a lot of underlying conditions can lead to excessive jerking and twitching at night. It's a good idea to see a doctor to make sure excessive movement isn't caused by something serious.

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