Nystagmus is a condition where your eyes move around involuntarily and one of the most common eye movement disorders. Your eyes can move from side to side (horizontal nystagmus), or up and down (vertical nystagmus). They can also move in a circle (rotary nystagmus).

Nystagmus eye movements can be slow or fast, and they usually happen in both eyes.

Causes of nystagmus

Nystagmus can be congenital (present at birth) or acquired. With congenital nystagmus, the eye twitching usually starts between 6 weeks and 3 months of age. Children, who can inherit nystagmus from their parents, usually have horizontal nystagmus.

Acquired nystagmus happens later in life and has many causes. Some of these causes are:

  • Albinism
  • Alcohol or drug use
  • Cataracts and strabismus in children
  • Head injury
  • Inner ear problems, such as Meniere’s disease
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Stroke
  • Use of certain medications such as lithium or anti-seizure medicines

Symptoms of nystagmus

In addition to rapid eye movements that can’t be controlled, symptoms of nystagmus include:

  • Dizziness
  • Holding the head in a tilted position
  • Sensitivity to light
  • The feeling that what you see is shaking
  • Trouble seeing in the dark
  • Vision problems

Diagnosis of nystagmus

An ophthalmologist will examine the inside of your eyes and test your vision. They’ll also look for other eye problems that are related to nystagmus, such as strabismus or cataracts.

Your ophthalmologist may also perform these tests:

  • A neurological exam
  • An ear exam
  • Eye-movement recordings to confirm the type of nystagmus you have
  • Tests to image your brain, such as CT scans or MRI scans

Treatment of nystagmus

People who are born with nystagmus can’t be cured of this condition. They may benefit from wearing glasses or contact lenses, which don’t cure nystagmus but can help slow down eye movements.

In some cases, acquired nystagmus goes away. This can happen if the condition that caused nystagmus is treated and resolves.

Surgery is rarely used for nystagmus — it can be used to reposition the eye muscles that move the eyes, but it doesn’t cure nystagmus. It can, however, allow you to keep your head in a more comfortable position.

In some cases — for example, if nystagmus is cause by multiple sclerosis — a medication called gabapentin can be used to reduce nystagmus.

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