Acquired nystagmus

Nystagmus that develops at any time beyond early infancy, generally in adults, is called “acquired nystagmus”. Often acquired nystagmus is a sign of another (underlying) condition such as stroke, multiple sclerosis, brain tumour, the effect of a drug or a head injury. Anything that impacts the parts of the brain that control eye movements can result in nystagmus. It is important to pursue a full diagnosis of the likely cause of the acquired nystagmus with a consultant ophthalmologist and a neurologist. This can be a long and complex process.

How is acquired nystagmus diagnosed?

Acquired nystagmus can be caused by a disease (brain tumour), an accident (head injury), a neurological problem or it can be the side effect of a medication. Hyperventilation, a flashing light in front of one eye, nicotine and even vibrations have been known to cause nystagmus in rare cases.

Acquired nystagmus can be clinically investigated by using a number of non-invasive standard tests. These include using an eye tracker machine.

How is acquired nystagmus treated?

The understanding of nystagmus and the treatments for the condition are developing all the time. Those which are currently available include botulinum toxin injections and drugs such as Gabapentin and Memantine, which reduce the symptoms of acquired nystagmus in some people, although they do have some side effects.

Various alternative therapies and relaxation techniques have been tried by people with acquired nystagmus and, although there is no scientific evidence that they work, some people say they have led to improved vision or even reduced the nystagmus in individual cases.

How does acquired nystagmus affect vision?

The main effect of acquired nystagmus is the sense that things are always moving (oscillopsia). Unlike in congenital nystagmus, where the brain somehow adapts to the eye movement, giving a generally still image, this is not usually the case with acquired nystagmus.

For this reason acquired nystagmus can sometimes be a more disorienting form of nystagmus than congenital nystagmus. People can feel disorientated, dizzy and nauseous and find everyday tasks challenging.

Can acquired nystagmus be cured?

Unfortunately, a cure has yet to be found for nystagmus in general, however research work is constantly being undertaken to understand the condition better, so that an effective treatment can be identified. Knowledge is growing about the underlying problems with the visual system that lead to nystagmus. Correcting problems in the eye, without risking what good sight there is, presents doctors with an immense problem.

In general, the main way in which doctors can help is to alleviate symptoms and provide information. This includes correcting any other issues, such as short or long sight, astigmatism or squint.

How can the Nystagmus Network help?

The charity receives more and more enquiries from people experiencing acquired nystagmus. They often feel alone and isolated. We are working to bring those people together to share their experiences and offer each other support. If you, or someone you know, would like to be part of our support group, please contact us today.