Nystagmus – Twitchy, Jittery Involuntary Eye Movements
Nystagmus is an involuntary, jittery and unnatural movement of the eyes. It can cause the eyes to swing rapidly from side to side rather than focusing upon an object or person. It usually involves both eyes and is often worse when looking in one particular direction.
Some types of nystagmus are accompanied by poor vision, such as extreme nearsightedness or farsightedness. It can also affect those with scars on the retina or optic nerve. It may be the result of a brain tumor or a serious neurological condition and can be found in some families, apparently unrelated to any other condition or cause.
Types of Nystagmus
Nystagmus is usually present at birth or begins during early childhood. The involuntary eye movement may improve slightly with age but is likely to worsen at times of stress and tiredness. Different types of the disorder include:
- Manifest nystagmus - This type of nystagmus is present at all times and remains unchanged when an eye is covered.
- Manifest-laden nystagmus - The condition is continually present but worsens when one eye is covered.
- Latent nystagmus - In this form, the nystagmus is only evident when one eye is covered.
- Congenital nystagmus - This condition is present from birth. The eyes move together and swing from side to side like a pendulum.
- Acquired nystagmus - When nystagmus is not a natural defect of the eyes but rather is triggered by an event, it is referred to as acquired nystagmus. It can be caused by a head injury, brain tumor, or other neurological problem; diseases like multiple sclerosis; medications or illegal drugs; nicotine; excessive alcohol consumption and even outside stimuli like flashing lights or vibrations.
The symptoms and implications of nystagmus
Most people who suffer from nystagmus are born with it, or it is induced by trauma or disease. It is almost always caused by neurological problems which are eye related, known as optokinetic, or inner eye related, known as vestibular.
Jerk nystagmus is common in those with inner ear problems, including Meniere’s disease. The eyes drift slowly to one side and then jerk back again. This action can cause vertigo and nausea. Fortunately this type of nystagmus is usually temporary. Taking a decongestant may provide some relief.
Those with nystagmus have poor vision as the motion of the eyes keeps them from sending a clear image to the brain. In severe cases, the sufferer may even be declared legally blind. Some people find that by holding their head a certain way and locking their eyes, they have more stable vision and can see more clearly.
Treatment for nystagmus
Vision can sometimes be improved by with eyeglasses, and contact lenses can be particularly useful in treating nystagmus. In addition to the obvious benefit of vision correction, for some patients, the sensation of the contacts on the eyes can help to reduce eye movements. Contact lenses also have the added benefit of being able to move with the eyes in a way that eyeglasses cannot.
Drugs such as Botox and Baclofen can sometimes be used to reduce the nystagmus movements although the effects are usually only temporary. Surgery may also be an option for some patients.
Since nystagmus is a visible condition, it can affect how sufferers are regarded socially and impact their education and work opportunities. Counseling can sometimes help with these challenges.
Tips for assisting a child with nystagmus
- Expect the child to lead a normal life. Keep a positive attitude.
- Work with an eye doctor you can trust and have a rapport with.
- Keep glasses and contact lenses up-to-date with regular eye exams.
- Make explanations to family and friends brief and positive.
- Explain the basics of nystagmus to the child's teachers so that they understand the child's limitations and their ability to see, learn and interact with others.
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