What Is Nystagmus?

An image of the eye
An image of the eye. National Eye Institute

Question: What is nystagmus?

Answer: Nystagmus refers to uncontrolled eye movements. Nystagmus usually involves quick, jittery movements made by both eyes, both horizontally and vertically. Some people do not realize that they have nystagmus because their eye movements are not apparent to them and their vision is normal. Some people may tilt their heads in order to see better, as turning the head tends to slow down the rapid eye movements.


Types of Nystagmus

There are two types of nystagmus, sensory and motor. Sensory nystagmus refers to loss of vision. Motor nystagmus is related to loss of eye muscle control. 

Causes of Nystagmus

Nystagmus is caused by instability of the system that controls eye movements or defects in the visual pathways to the brain. Sometimes nystagmus is a symptom that develops with another condition such as stroke or multiple sclerosis. Following are possible causes of nystagmus:

  • Family history. Nystagmus is often inherited.
  • Albinism 
  • Certain eye disorders (cataracts, strabismus and other refractive errors)
  • Certain diseases (Meniere's disease, multiple sclerosis, stroke.) Suffering a stroke often causes nystagmus. 
  • Injury to the head or concussion.
  • Certain medications or drugs
  • Alcohol 
  • Inner ear problems

When Does Nystagmus Develop?

Nystagmus is classified as either congenital, spasms nutans, or acquired. The most common type is congenital nystagmus which is present at birth.

Acquired nystagmus develops at a later point in life due to an illness, injury or disease. 

  • Congenital - Usually develops by the age of 2 to 3 months. The eyes tend to move in a horizontal swinging fashion. Congenital nystagmus is often associated with other conditions such as albinism, congenital absence of the iris (the colored part of the eye), underdeveloped optic nerves, and congenital cataract.
  • Spasmus nutans - Usually develops between the ages of 6 months and 3 years. Spasmus nutans usually disappears between the ages of 2 and 8. Children with spasms nutans are sometimes identified by a noticeable head tilt or nodding. This type of nystagmus usually does not require treatment.
  • Acquired - Acquired nystagmus develops later in childhood or adulthood and usually has no identifiable cause. It may be caused by central nervous system and metabolic disorders, or by alcohol and drug use.

What You Should Know

Nystagmus can be diagnosed through a comprehensive eye exam. If you notice head tilting or nodding in your child, its a good idea to alert your pediatrician. Several health conditions are associated with nystagmus, including inherited genetic disorders, multiple sclerosis, albinism, fibromyalgia, Meniere's disease as well as with other eye conditions, such as strabismus. Since nystagmus is often the result of other underlying health problems, your eye doctor may refer you to your primary care physician or other medical specialist for further testing.

One way a doctor tests for nystagmus is by spinning a person around for a few seconds, then stopping them and asking them to locate and stare at a certain object. If the eyes move slowly in one direction at first, then move quickly the other way, nystagmus is usually diagnosed.


American Optometric Association (AOA). Nystagmus. AOA, 2006-10.

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