What is Nystagmus?

04 October 2019

Author: Tami

What is Nystagmus?

Nystagmus is a condition where the eye makes uncontrollable, repetitive movements.

This may result in the individual suffering from poor vision, unsteady balance and poor coordination, as well as a struggle with depth perception.

These movements often occur up and down, side to side and in a circular motion. It is not uncommon for individuals who suffer with this condition to move their heads and sit in unusual positions to try and get some relief.

Did you know that stress and exhaustion can worsen the symptoms of nystagmus? 

There are three forms of nystagmus that can occur:

Infantile: between the ages of 2 to 3 months, a baby’s eyes may appear to swing horizontally. This is often associated with other conditions, such as congenital absence of the iris, underdeveloped optic nerves, albinism or congenital cataract.   

Spasmus nutans: between the ages of 6 months and 3 years old, the child may experience nodding and tilting of the head to compensate for the condition. Their eyes might move in any direction, but doesn’t require treatment. It often improves on its own between the ages of 2 and 8 years old.

Acquired: this form of nystagmus develops later in childhood or adulthood. Unfortunately the cause is unknown, but it is suspected to be related to the central nervous system, or drug and alcohol toxicity. 

What are the causes of nystagmus?

Often caused by a neurological interference at birth or that develops in early childhood, acquired nystagmus can occur late in life, usually an additional symptom of another disease or past trauma.  

Other causes of nystagmus are:

Congenital cataract
Central nervous system diseases
Reaction to medication
Poor development of regular eye movement control
Inner ear inflammation
Very high myopia or astigmatism prescription 

How is nystagmus diagnosed?

Unfortunately it’s not possible to diagnose nystagmus through a regular eye exam. The patient’s history will be looked into, determining symptoms that they may be showing, their medications and their overall health that could potentially be contributing to the displayed symptoms.

It would be important to review the extent to which the individual’s vision has been affected, as well as what the appropriate approach would be in terms of lens power to compensate for whatever refractive error the individual may have.

It is also important to determine how well, or poorly, the eyes focus, move and work together. This is to check how receptive they are to movement in unison, to see if there is a struggle in using both eyes together.

As we have mentioned, nystagmus may be a result of another underlying health condition, which the optometrist will refer you on for additional testing, which will then be used to diagnose nystagmus and the appropriate treatment. 


Treatment for nystagmus:

Although visual aids like glasses and contact lenses may not completely fix the problem, they will improve your vision, enough to get by. Magnifying devices and large print pieces of literature will also make reading more comfortable.

As we mentioned before, nystagmus in early childhood may improve over time. It is rare to resort to surgery to alter the position of the muscles in the eye to improve vision, but this may lessen the amount of head movements. 

If there are other underlying health conditions that could be affecting your vision and causing nystagmus, the optometrist and other medical professionals will work together to find the cause and the appropriate treatment thereafter. 

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