International Nystagmus Awareness Day on June 20 draws attention to a condition that can cause serious vision problems, among other concerns. The day aims to highlight educational tools, resources and opportunities.
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 is a condition where you cannot control your eye movements.
These movements often cause reduced vision and depth perception and can affect balance and coordination. These involuntary eye movements can occur side to side, up and down, or in a circular pattern. As a result, both eyes are unable to see objects regularly.
People with nystagmus may nod and hold their head in unusual positions to compensate for the condition. Usually, nystagmus is a symptom of another eye or medical problem. Fatigue and stress can make nystagmus worse. However, the exact cause is often unknown.
People with nystagmus face a variety of challenges. The condition can cause serious vision problems rendering them legally blind.
Because eye movements set them apart from others, they often face self-image and social issues. The day aims to alleviate some of these concerns by raising awareness and erasing stigma.
Nystagmus is caused by many different things, including:
Be passed on by your parents.
Other eye problems, such as cataracts or strabismus.
Diseases such as stroke, multiple sclerosis or Ménière’s disease.
Albinism (lack of skin pigmentation).
Inner ear problems.
Certain medications, such as lithium or drugs for seizures.
Alcohol or drug use.
Your doctor may not be able to accurately diagnose its cause.
Involuntary eye movement.
Movement may be in one or both eyes.
Objects may appear blurry and shaky.
Night vision problems or sensitivity to light.
Balance and dizziness.
Nystagmus can be diagnosed by a comprehensive eye exam. The nystagmus test, with particular emphasis on how the eyes move, may include:
Patient history to determine the symptoms the patient is experiencing and the presence of general health conditions, medications taken, or environmental factors that may be contributing to the symptoms.
Visual acuity measurements to assess how vision may be affected.
A refraction to determine the appropriate lens power needed to compensate for any refractive error (myopia, hyperopia or astigmatism).
Test how the eyes focus, move and work together. In order to get a single, clear image of what is being viewed, the eyes must effectively change focus, move and work in unison. This test will look for problems that affect eye movement control or make it difficult to use both eyes together.
Since nystagmus is often the result of other underlying health conditions, a doctor of optometry may refer the patient to their primary care physician or other medical specialist for further testing.
Using the information obtained from the tests, a doctor of optometry can determine if the patient has nystagmus and advise on treatment options. Other tests may include an ear exam, neurological exam, and/or brain MRI.
Although glasses and contact lenses do not correct nystagmus itself, they can sometimes improve vision. The use of large-print books, magnifying devices, and increased lighting can also be helpful. Some types of nystagmus improve throughout childhood.
Rarely, surgery is done to change the position of the muscles that move the eyes. Although this surgery does not cure nystagmus, it can reduce the degree of rotation of a person’s head for better vision. If another health condition is causing the nystagmus, a doctor of optometry will often work with a primary care physician or other medical specialists to address that underlying cause.
Nystagmus can be hereditary and a person can be born with it, but it can also be a sign of another medical condition. A complete eye exam by a Doctor of Optometry is recommended to determine the cause and course of action.
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