Nystagmus: Causes, Types, Symptoms and Treatments

Mon Feb 19 2024

Imagine looking out at a beautiful landscape, only to find it constantly shaking, making it hard to focus or see clearly. This is what life can feel like for someone with Nystagmus, a condition where the eyes move uncontrollably. This phenomenon is not just a medical term but a lived reality for many, turning a simple gaze into a challenge.

In this blog, you’ll gain insight into nystagmus meaning, causes, types, symptoms, along with nystagmus treatment, shedding light on this complex condition.

What is Nystagmus?

Nystagmus is a vision condition characterised by involuntary, rapid, and repetitive movement of the eyes. If you have Nystagmus, your eyes may move different ways:

  • Side to side 
  • Up and down 
  • In a circle

The eye movements observed in Nystagmus can exhibit various behaviours:

  • Slowly move in one direction, followed by a quick, corrective jerk in the opposite direction.
  • Move back and forth smoothly, resembling the motion of a pendulum.

The involuntary eye movements associated with Nystagmus can lead to visual disturbances, such as blurred vision, difficulty with depth perception, and sensitivity to light. Nystagmus can be present at birth or developing in infancy or acquired later in life due to various causes.

Now that you have learnt Nystagmus meaning, let’s focus more on how it may affect your vision. 

How does Nystagmus affect vision?

Nystagmus affects vision in several ways, primarily due to the involuntary and rapid movement of the eyes that disrupts the normal ability to focus and maintain steady vision. The impact of Nystagmus on vision can vary significantly from person to person, depending on the severity and type of Nystagmus, as well as the presence of any underlying conditions. Here are some of the ways Nystagmus can impact vision:

  • Blurred Vision: The constant movement of the eyes makes it difficult for individuals with Nystagmus to maintain a clear and stable view of their surroundings, leading to general blurriness.
  • Reduced Visual Acuity: People with Nystagmus often experience a reduction in visual acuity, meaning they cannot see details at a distance or close up as clearly as someone without the condition.
  • Difficulty with Depth Perception: The eye movements can affect depth perception, making it challenging to judge distances accurately. This can impact activities like driving, playing sports, or simply navigating through crowded areas.
  • Problems with Balance and Coordination: Since vision plays a crucial role in balance and coordination, Nystagmus can lead to difficulties in these areas, affecting physical movements and activities.
  • Strain and Discomfort: Trying to focus while the eyes are moving involuntarily can cause eye strain and discomfort, leading to headaches or fatigue, especially after prolonged periods of concentration.
  • Sensitivity to Light: Some individuals with Nystagmus may also experience photophobia, or sensitivity to light, which can be uncomfortable or even painful in bright environments.
  • Difficulty Reading and Performing Close Tasks: The constant eye movement can make it particularly challenging to read, write, or perform tasks that require close attention to detail.
  • Adopting Abnormal Head Positions: In an effort to see more clearly, individuals with Nystagmus might adopt abnormal head positions to find a “null point” where the eye movements are minimized and vision is slightly improved.

Different types of Nystagmus

Nystagmus is categorised into various types based on the cause, characteristics of eye movements, and other factors. Here are the various types of Nystagmus:

  • Congenital (Infantile) Nystagmus: This type appears at birth or within the first few months of life. It’s often associated with a genetic condition or an early developmental issue. The eye movements can be horizontal, vertical, or rotary, but they are typically horizontal.
  • Acquired Nystagmus: Unlike congenital Nystagmus, acquired Nystagmus develops later in life due to various reasons such as head injury, stroke, multiple sclerosis, or the use of certain medications. It can also result from alcohol or drug toxicity.
  • Manifest Nystagmus: This is present at all times when the eyes are open and looking around.
  • Latent Nystagmus: This type only becomes apparent when one eye is covered. It is often associated with conditions that disrupt binocular vision early in life.
  • Manifest-Latent Nystagmus: A combination of manifest and latent Nystagmus, where the condition is present at all times but worsens when one eye is covered.
  • Spasmus Nutans Nystagmus: A rare form typically seen in early childhood that may include head nodding and a tilting of the head. It usually resolves on its own without nystagmus treatment.
  • Optokinetic Nystagmus (OKN): This is a normal reflexive response of the eyes to moving objects or rapidly changing scenes. However, abnormalities in OKN can indicate neurological problems.
  • Gaze-Evoked Nystagmus: This occurs when the eyes move off-centre in the direction of gaze. It’s often a sign of a neurological issue or medication side effect.
  • Pendular Nystagmus: The eyes move smoothly, like a pendulum, back and forth.
  • Jerk Nystagmus: Characterized by a slow drift in one direction followed by a corrective quick jerk in the opposite direction. It can be horizontal, vertical, or rotary.
  • Positional or Positioning Nystagmus: Triggered by changes in head position, this type is often linked to inner ear problems, especially those affecting the vestibular system.
  • Periodic Alternating Nystagmus (PAN): A rare form where the eyes drift slowly in one direction and then suddenly switch to the opposite direction after a short period.

There are different nystagmus causes,  associated conditions, and implications for vision and balance. Diagnosis often involves observing the eye movements, understanding the patient’s history, and conducting various tests to determine the specific type and appropriate treatment strategies. 

What causes Nystagmus?

The causes of Nystagmus are varied, reflecting the complexity of the visual and neurological systems. They can be broadly categorized based on whether the Nystagmus is congenital (present at birth or developing in infancy) or acquired later in life. 

  • Genetic mutations that affect the development of eye or brain structures.
  • Developmental issues in the foetus affecting the parts of the brain responsible for controlling eye movements.
  • Congenital eye conditions, such as albinism, congenital cataracts, or underdevelopment of the eyes.
  • Neurological conditions, like multiple sclerosis, stroke, or brain tumours, which can disrupt normal eye movement control.
  • Inner ear disorders that impact balance and spatial orientation, including Meniere’s disease or vestibular neuritis.
  • Use of certain medications or substances, including excessive alcohol or drugs, which can induce Nystagmus.
  • Head injuries that cause trauma to the brain areas controlling eye movements.
  • Eye or vision problems, including severe refractive errors or diseases that make it hard for the eyes to focus or work together.
  • Vitamin or mineral deficiencies, such as a lack of vitamin B12, which can occasionally lead to Nystagmus.

Signs and Symptoms of Nystagmus

Navigating through life with Nystagmus symptoms can be like trying to read a book on a moving train, where every word jitters and shifts, making clarity elusive. Here are some common nystagmus symptoms that you should never ignore:

  • Involuntary eye movements
  • Blurred vision
  • Reduced visual acuity
  • Head tilting or turning
  • Difficulty with depth perception
  • Sensitivity to light
  • Problems with balance and coordination
  • Fatigue and eye strain
  • Difficulties reading and performing close tasks

These symptoms can vary in severity and may not all be present in every individual with Nystagmus. The impact of these symptoms can also vary widely, affecting daily activities, learning, and overall quality of life. Treatments and supportive strategies are tailored to the individual’s needs, aiming to improve visual function and manage the symptoms of Nystagmus.

How is Nystagmus diagnosed by eye care professionals?

Nystagmus is diagnosed by eye care professionals through a comprehensive evaluation that includes a detailed medical history, eye examinations, and possibly other diagnostic tests. The professional will start by asking about the patient’s medical history, including any family history of Nystagmus, the age at onset, and associated symptoms. This helps to determine whether the Nystagmus is congenital or acquired and to identify any underlying conditions.

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To determine the underlying cause of Nystagmus, you might need to undergo a series of tests conducted by various specialists. An ophthalmologist can carry out assessments to check for any eye diseases contributing to Nystagmus. A neurologist’s evaluation can help identify if brain-related issues are at the root of the condition. An otorhinolaryngologist or an audiologist may conduct tests to discover if the Nystagmus is linked to an inner ear disorder.

The diagnostic tests could include:

  • A comprehensive neurological examination.
  • An examination of the ears.
  • Recording of eye movements through techniques like electronystagmography or video-nystagmography.
  • Imaging studies, such as a CT scan or MRI, to obtain detailed images of the brain.
  • Genetic testing to detect any hereditary mutations that might be causing congenital Nystagmus.

Management and Treatment for Nystagmus

Nystagmus presents a unique challenge in the realm of eye conditions; while it is not currently curable, there are effective strategies to manage its symptoms and improve quality of life for those affected. The goal of managing Nystagmus is to enhance visual function, reduce symptoms, and support individuals in achieving their daily and long-term objectives. By employing a combination of corrective measures, therapeutic interventions, and adaptive techniques, individuals with Nystagmus can navigate the condition more effectively. Some Nystagmus treatment strategies include:

  • Corrective Lenses: Glasses or contact lenses are often the first step in management, helping to correct any refractive errors and improve visual clarity.
  • Prism Lenses: For some, prism lenses can be beneficial. These lenses adjust the light entering the eye, reducing the need for compensatory head positions by aligning the visual field with the eye’s position.
  • Surgical Options: Surgery may be considered to alter the position of the muscles around the eyes, aiming to reduce Nystagmus intensity and correct associated head postures. This approach can stabilize vision for certain individuals.

Risks and potential Complications of Nystagmus

Nystagmus, while primarily affecting vision, can also lead to several risks and potential complications that extend beyond the direct impact on eyesight. Understanding these risks is crucial for managing the condition effectively and mitigating its broader effects on health and well-being. Here are some of the key risks and potential complications associated with Nystagmus:

  • Reduced visual acuity and clarity
  • Social and emotional challenges
  • Developmental delays in children
  • Difficulty with balance and coordination
  • Increased risk of accidents or injuries
  • Strain and discomfort in the eyes
  • Difficulty driving or operating machinery
  • Challenges in educational and occupational settings
  • Reduced independence and quality of life
  • Potential for worsening symptoms without appropriate management

The Bottom Line

Nystagmus presents a unique set of challenges to those it affects, from the way they perceive their surroundings to how they navigate their daily lives. By understanding its causes, recognizing its symptoms, and exploring available treatments, we take important steps towards supporting individuals with this condition. As research continues to unravel the mysteries of the brain and eye coordination, there is hope for more effective interventions in the future.


  1. What is Nystagmus?

Nystagmus is a condition characterized by involuntary, rapid movements of the eyes, which can impact vision and focus.

  1. What are the types of Nystagmus?

The main types of Nystagmus include congenital (or infantile) Nystagmus, acquired Nystagmus, manifest Nystagmus, latent Nystagmus, and manifest-latent Nystagmus.

  1. Is Nystagmus a hereditary condition?

Yes, Nystagmus can be hereditary, especially the congenital form, but it can also occur due to other non-genetic factors.

  1. What age group of people gets affected by Nystagmus?

Nystagmus can affect individuals of any age but is often detected in infancy or early childhood for congenital types, or later in life for acquired types.

  1. Can voluntary Nystagmus cause blindness?

No, voluntary Nystagmus, a rare ability to produce eye movements at will, does not cause blindness or significant vision loss.

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