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Nystagmus: Causes, Symptoms & treatments

You may feel like your eyes have a mind of their own. They move up and down, side to side, or in a circle. This is called nystagmus or “dancing eyes.” It’s a condition where you can’t control your eye movements.

What Causes Nystagmus?

It may be a sign of another eye problem or medical condition. You may be born with it, or you might develop it later in life. Nystagmus is caused by many different things, including:

  • Being passed down from your parents
  • Other eye issues, like cataracts or strabismus
  • Diseases like stroke, multiple sclerosis, or Meniere’s disease
  • Head injuries
  • Albinism (lack of skin pigment)
  • Inner ear problems
  • Certain medications, like lithium or drugs for seizures
  • Alcohol or drug use

Sometimes, your doctor may not know what causes it.

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What Are the Symptoms of Nystagmus?

Your eyes move without your control. It might be fast, then slow, then fast again. The movement might be in one eye, but it’s usually in both eyes. You may notice that you nod your head or keep it in strange positions. You do that because it helps you focus when you can’t hold your gaze steady. Things look clearer when you tilt or turn your head.

Objects may seem a little blurry to children with nystagmus. But the world doesn’t look shaky to them. It’s different if you develop the condition as an adult. Then the world appears to move a little when you look around.

Nystagmus may also affect your vision. You might have a hard time seeing in the dark, or you may be sensitive to bright light. You may have problems with balance and dizziness. These can be worse if you’re tired or stressed.

How Do You Treat Nystagmus?

If you developed nystagmus as an adult, there may be simple things you can do to lessen its effects. Sometimes you may just have to stop a medicine or quit drinking alcohol or taking drugs.

Wear the right contacts or glasses to improve vision. It won’t cure nystagmus, but it can help with other eye problems that can make it worse.

Eye muscle surgery may be an option. The goal is to help with the head tilt that often comes with nystagmus. Sometimes surgery improves vision, too.

Some drugs may ease symptoms in adults but not children. These include the anti-seizure medicine gabapentin (Neurontin), the muscle relaxant baclofen (Lioresal), and Botox.

There are things you can do at home to make it easier to deal with your “dancing eyes.” Use large-print books and turn up the print size on your computer, tablet, and phone. More lighting may help with vision, too.

If your child has nystagmus, encourage her to use her eyes. Big and brightly colored toys are easiest to use. Choose toys that make noise and have unique textures.

Let your child hold books close to her eyes with her head tilted. Let her wear a hat or tinted glasses — even indoors — to reduce glare.

Talk to your child’s teacher to make things easier at school. It would be hard for her to share books or papers. Let her choose where to sit so she can see the board and the teacher.

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