29 June 2022
What is nystagmus?
Nystagmus is a condition where your eyes shake involuntary from side to side, up and down, or in a circular motion. These movements are uncontrollable which can be very frustrating for the person experiencing them, especially as it can also affect your visual acuity. There are around 2 per every 1,000 people who suffer with nystagmus to some degree. Nystagmus can vary in its severity and in how it manifests itself. We’re going to look at the different types of nystagmus, what causes them, and how you may be able to reduce some of the symptoms and effects on your vision.
What causes nystagmus?
The cause of nystagmus varies depending on which type of nystagmus you have, and some of these even have genetic links. Some of the different forms of nystagmus include:
The main cause of nystagmus is due to an issue with the part of your eye that transmits visual signals from the eye to the brain. This process provides us with the final image that we see but when the visual system fails to develop, or occurring as a result of trauma, the process can stop working and instead results in the shaking of the eyes.
Congenital nystagmus is a type of nystagmus that babies develop in their first few months of life. It can be caused by a number of other conditions such as congenital cataracts, ocular albinism, optical nerve conditions, and aniridia which is where the iris is missing or undeveloped. You can read more about how these conditions can lead to nystagmus here.
Idiopathic nystagmus is the name for nystagmus which has no known cause. Often, if the condition hasn’t been caused by issues with the visual signals transmission, then it will have occurred due to a stroke or major head injury. However, if there is no obvious reason and the nystagmus cannot be attributed to any particular cause, it is idiopathic.
Acquired nystagmus, as we briefly touched on earlier, is a form of the condition which affects people later in life, beyond childhood when they may have developed congenital nystagmus. Acquired nystagmus can occur due to a number of factors such as a stroke, head injury, brain tumour, or use of drugs. Acquired nystagmus can worsen when you’re tired or stressed, and even disappear and reappear in line with lifestyle and health choices you’re making.
Jerk nystagmus is a type of nystagmus which is often acquired later in life. This differs to other forms of nystagmus as your eyes don’t shake involuntary, but rather drift in one direction before jerking back in the other direction. This usually occurs as a result of issues with your inner ears, leading to impacts on your balance, as well as nausea and vertigo. Feelings of being unbalanced are more common in people who have recently acquired jerk nystagmus as it takes time for them to grow used to the movement of their eyes.
How do you know if you have nystagmus?
If you have nystagmus, you’ll have noticed due to its main symptom of uncontrollable shaking of your eyes. The shaking can involve both eyes moving in sync or, more commonly, each eye moving independently of the other. This may affect your visual acuity and cause you to need glasses, but that’s not always the case. The shaking of your eyes is noticeable if you look in a mirror, as well as you experiencing your actual visual field shaking too.
The more difficult nystagmus diagnoses typically occur when it comes to identifying it in a child. Children may not be able to articulate what is wrong with their vision or it’s possible that, if they’ve been dealing with it from a very young age, they might just be used to it as they don’t know any different. You may find yourself – or your child – dealing with the following symptoms as a result of nystagmus:
- Struggling with depth perception
- Difficulties with balance and coordination
- Taking longer to read
- Tilting head in order to focus vision
How can you treat nystagmus?
At the moment, there is no cure for nystagmus. While research is on-going, there is no hard and fast treatment for the condition. Something that a lot of people find helps is to wear glasses, which has been found to slow the erratic movements that come with nystagmus. This is because having clearer vision strains your eyes less and therefore reduces any shaking. Glasses with a prism in the lens also can benefit people struggling with nystagmus as the prism bends the light which enters the eye, minimising symptoms like double vision that can sometimes occur as a result of nystagmus.
While nystagmus can’t be treated yet, one small comfort is that it does not get worse with age. To find out more about nystagmus, visit our blog post: What is nystagmus and what causes it? Discover more about the ‘null zone’ that can help people with nystagmus to see better, and find out how to make reading with nystagmus easier.