Nystagmus (Uncontrollable Eye Movements)

Nystagmus is the name of a condition where the eyes move involuntarily side to side or up and down. Nystagmus usually affects both eyes and is classified by the type and speed of the eye movements and the time of life when symptoms emerge. The nystagmus condition is usually harmless, but it can also be a symptom of a more serious neurological problem or vision problem.

What is nystagmus?

Nystagmus is characterized by rapid involuntary eye movement. The eyes may sweep slowly in one direction then rapidly snap back in the other direction. The movement can be side to side like a swinging pendulum or up and down. Each type of movement may be exaggerated by looking in one particular direction.

A limited amount of nystagmus movement is not a cause for concern. When the eye looks far in one direction, it is normal for the eye to twitch and jerk back toward the center of vision. However, extended involuntary movement may indicate a more serious problem.

Symptoms of nystagmus

There are several different types of nystagmus; the primary symptom of each is the involuntary movement of the eyes.

People with nystagmus may also experience the following symptoms: 

  • Fluctuations in vision 
  • Poor depth perception 
  • Vertigo and dizziness

To see better, people with nystagmus may need to assume unusual head and eye positions. Certain head angles can actually stabilize images and limit eye movement.

Causes of nystagmus

Nystagmus has several different causes. The condition may be present from birth or acquired from any of the following: 

  • Trauma 
  • Multiple sclerosis 
  • Brain tumor
  • Diabetic neuropathy 
  • Head injury 
  • Use of certain medications (especially anti-seizure medications) 
  • Inner ear problems

Treatment of nystagmus

The nystagmus condition may improve with age, but it can also worsen with stress. In some cases, simply removing the cause of the nystagmus can eliminate the eye movements (for example, going off anti-seizure medication). However, for the most part nystagmus is a permanent condition.

Prescription eyewear can help people with nystagmus see better and drugs like BOTOX have been shown to reduce nystagmus eye movements. Talk to your doctor about how to cope with the effects of nystagmus.


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