Nystagmus is an involuntary, shaking, “to and fro” movement of the eyes.
Nystagmus is typically classified as congenital or acquired, with multiple subcategories.
Congenital nystagmus onset is typically between 6 weeks and 3 months of age. Congenital motor nystagmus tends to be horizontal, bilateral, idiopathic (cause unknown) and is sometimes inherited. Sensory nystagmus also occurs early in life and is secondary to poor vision caused by a variety of eye conditions such as cataract (cloudiness of the eye’s lens), strabismus (eye misalignment) and optic nerve hypoplasia.
Acquired nystagmus occurs later and has many etiologies. Acquired nystagmus can be associated with serious medical conditions.
• Optic nerve hypoplasia
• Leber’s congenital amaurosis
• Severe refractive error
• Retina coloboma
• Other optic nerve and retina disorders
• Medication use
• Vitamin deficiency
• Fetal alcohol syndrome
• Inner ear (vestibular) problems
• Stroke (most common cause in older people with acquired nystagmus
• Brain tumor (rare cause of acquired nystagmus)
All children and adults with nystagmus should be evaluated by an ophthalmologist (and primary care physician) to determine if any association exists with other conditions.
Nystagmus can be inheritable, sometimes with a strong family history, dominant, recessive and x-linked patterns have been reported. The severity of nystagmus often varies amongst members of an involved family.
The visual development of a child with nystagmus is quite variable. Some children with nystagmus have a mild reduction in visual acuity (20/50 or better) while others have severe visual disability (20/200 or worse). It is difficult to predict what the visual acuity will be as an adult; however, most individuals with nystagmus have some reduction of visual function.
Children with nystagmus typically see the world similarly to other children, albeit with some blurriness. The world does not appear to “shake”. Individuals with adult onset or acquired nystagmus often report the appearance of movement of the seen world (oscillopsia).
Nystagmus severity can vary upon direction of gaze; the eyes oscillate more when looking in certain directions. The gaze position of least eye movement is the “null point” and tends to be where vision is best. Tilting or turning the head can thus optimize vision.
Yes, but rarely. Spasmus nutans (triad of nystagmus, head bobbing or nodding, and a head turn or tilt) is often noted to have unilateral nystagmus. However, under close observation the nystagmus is bilateral but highly asymmetric with a high-frequency “shimmering” movement.
Eye muscle surgery (strabismus surgery) may be indicated for some individuals with nystagmus. The goal of surgery in most instances is to help alleviate a significantly abnormal head position or to decrease the amplitude of nystagmus. Surgery can sometimes cause vision improvement but does not fully eliminate nystagmus.
Significant refractive error is corrected with glasses or contact lenses. Contact lenses, in some circumstances, can be more visually beneficial than spectacles. Variable success has been noted with medications used to dampen the severity of nystagmus. Unfortunately, the use of these medications is frequently limited by side effects. Botulinum toxin is helpful for some individuals with severe, intractable oscillopsia.
For more information, visit the American Nystagmus Network.
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