You're dozing off, and your whole body suddenly jerks like you just slipped off of a curb or missed a stair. Or you're sitting at your desk, working away and your eyelid all at once feels as though it's fluttering. Or maybe a lively dinner conversation gets punctuated by a case of hilarious, gulping hiccups. Each of these peculiar jolts is something called a myoclonic jerk – a brief, involuntary muscle twitch or spasm.
One kind of myoclonic jerk you may have felt is called a hypnic jerk or "sleep start." This is that jolt you may occasionally experience as you're just about to fall asleep or when a dream startles or abruptly awakens you. It happens to about 60-70% of us, and only now and then. Why it happens is a bit of a mystery. Ideas range from it being a natural part of the transition into sleep to it being a primitive, evolutionary memory of sleeping in trees.
Whatever their origin, sleep starts are usually nothing to worry about, unless you kick your partner or stub your toe on the bedpost. Fatigue or too much caffeine, stress, or exercise before bed seems to spark off more frequent and intense episodes. Seek help from a doctor or sleep specialist if hypnic jerks keep you from getting enough shuteye.
For your eyes to shut or open, they use a band of ocular muscles which twitch from time to time. Most of the time, eyelid twitches last only a few minutes but can recur over a few days. Like pre-sleep twitches, eyelid twitches seem to be caused by caffeine and fatigue. Contact your eye doctor if the fluttery lid persists, causes your eyelid to stay closed, involves other parts of your face, or is accompanied by redness, swelling, or discharge.
A common form of myoclonic jerk is the hiccup. A hiccup is a spontaneous spasm of the diaphragm, the wide, flat, strong muscle beneath the lungs. The spasm causes the vocal cords to close up and trigger that typical "hic" sound. Triggers include hot, spicy food, strong smells, laughing, coughing, or nothing at all.
Everyone hiccups, even babies still in the womb. This could be a way to exercise the developing respiratory system or to prevent amniotic fluid from getting into babies' lungs. One intriguing theory links an infant's suckling reflex to hiccups. Researchers suggest that hiccups could be a trait linking us to possible amphibious ancestors, like frogs and other gill-breathing animals.
Well, hiccups certainly can make you hop, but they usually only last a few minutes! If hiccups last more than a few days, see a doctor. In rare instances, hiccups can last for days, weeks, or even months and may be due to some more serious underlying cause.
History's many hiccup remedies
Even though they don't last too long, hiccup fits have inspired many "remedies" over the years. There is no definite way to stop hiccups, but you can give these a try. These hiccup cures have been advocated by health professionals.
The remedies below are less proven but some swear by them.
The best remedy for hiccups? Patience.
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