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Nystagmus

Overview

Nystagmus is a condition that causes involuntary eye movements. The eyes may move in a side-to-side, up-and-down or circular motion. People with nystagmus often have difficulty focusing their eyes. To counteract this, they may tilt their heads in multiple directions to help fixate on an object.

It is not always clear why some people have nystagmus. For others, there may be an apparent underlying health condition, such as a neurological illness or eye disease. While there is no cure for the condition, patients who seek help from a physician or neuro-ophthalmologist (a specialist in visual problems related to the nervous system) can properly manage the condition.

Types

  • Infantile nystagmus syndrome (or congenital nystagmus) develops by 2 to 3 months of age.
  • Spasmus nutans occurs between 6 months and 3 years of age. Often resolves without treatment during childhood.
  • Acquired develops later in life, either in late childhood or adulthood.

Symptoms

  • Dizziness
  • Poor night vision
  • Rapid, uncontrolled eye movements in one or both eyes
  • Sensitivity to light
  • Vision problems

Prevention

Many cases are hereditary and cannot be prevented. Ask your physician about any lifestyle habits that may put you at risk for acquired nystagmus, including alcohol and drug use.

Risk Factors

  • Albinism
  • Alcohol or drug misuse
  • Cataracts
  • Inner ear problems
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Previous head injury
  • Stroke
  • Taking anti-seizure medications
  • Diagnosis

    • Comprehensive eye exam. An eye doctor will complete a thorough exam to detect nystagmus. You will be asked about your specific symptoms, family history of the disease and general health problems. Your provider will complete several tests to see how your eyes move and how well they work together. The provider will also check for other eye problems, such as cataracts, misaligned eyes or retina issues.
    • Further testing. Your physician or eye doctor may refer you to a specialist for further testing to confirm a diagnosis. You’ll likely need additional tests if the disease is related to another health problem. Some specialized tests include an ear exam, MRI or CT scan of the head, or neurologic exam.
  • Treatment

    • People with nystagmus may benefit from corrective lenses. Glasses and contact lenses will not cure or treat the condition, but clearer vision may help slow irregular eye movements.
    • Your provider will address any underlying medical problems. They may also suggest therapy or recovery programs for substance abuse issues related to alcohol and/or drug use.
    • Surgery may be recommended in rare cases. Surgical procedures will not cure nystagmus but can reposition the eye muscles. This allows you to keep your head held in a comfortable position.
  • Follow-up Care

    Your physician and neuro-ophthalmologist will continue to monitor your condition throughout your lifetime. Follow your providers’ recommendations for how often to schedule checkups. Talk to your physician about available resources in the community for people with limited or reduced vision.