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What causes uncontrolled eye movements? 15 possible conditions

What Is Nystagmus?

Nystagmus is a condition that causes involuntary, rapid movement of one or both eyes. The eye(s) may move from side to side, up and down, or in a circular motion. Nystagmus is often accompanied by vision problems, including blurriness. It is common for individuals with this condition to tilt their heads to compensate for their difficulty seeing.

This condition is also known as:

  • dancing eyes
  • back-and-forth eye movements
  • involuntary eye movements
  • uncontrolled eye movements
  • rapid eye movements (from side to side)

Common Causes of Nystagmus

Nystagmus is caused by abnormal functioning of the part of the brain or inner ear that regulates eye movement and positioning. The condition can be either congenital or acquired.

Infantile Nystagmus Syndrome (INS)

Congenital nystagmus is called infantile nystagmus syndrome (INS), and may be an inherited genetic condition. INS typically appears within the first six weeks to three months of a child’s life (AAPOS). This type of nystagmus is usually mild and is not typically caused by an underlying health problem. In rare cases, a congenital eye disease could cause INS.

Most individuals with INS will not need treatment and do not have complications later in life. In fact, many people with INS do not even notice their eye movements. However, vision challenges are common. Vision problems can range from mild to severe, and many individuals require corrective lenses or may opt to have corrective surgery.

Acquired Nystagmus

Acquired (or acute) nystagmus can develop at any stage of life. It is often the result of injury or disease. Acquired nystagmus is typically caused by events that affect the labyrinth—the part of the inner ear that helps you to sense movement and spatial positioning.

Acquired nystagmus can be caused by:

  • stroke
  • certain medications or drugs, including sedatives and antiseizure medications like phenytoin (Dilantin)
  • excessive alcohol consumption
  • head injury or trauma
  • diseases of the eye
  • diseases of the inner ear
  • vitamin deficiency (specifically B12 or thiamine)
  • diseases of the brain (including multiple sclerosis or brain tumors)
  • diseases of the central nervous system

When to Seek Treatment for Nystagmus

If you begin to notice symptoms of nystagmus, see your doctor. Adult-onset (acquired) nystagmus is the result of an underlying health condition. You will want to determine what that condition is and how best to treat it.

If you have congenital nystagmus, you will only need to see a doctor if the condition gets worse or if you have concerns about your vision.

Treating Nystagmus

Treatment for nystagmus depends on whether the condition is congenital or acquired. Congenital nystagmus does not require treatment, although corrective lenses or eye surgery may help with vision difficulties. If the condition is acquired, treatment will focus on the underlying cause.

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See a list of possible causes in order from the most common to the least.


Menieres Disease

Meniere's disease is a disorder of the inner ear. It's not known what causes it, but there are a variety of treatments available to help with the symptoms.

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Intracerebral Hemorrhage

This condition is considered a medical emergency. Urgent care may be required.

Intracerebral hemorrhage (ICH) is when blood suddenly bursts into brain tissue, causing damage to the brain. Symptoms usually appear suddenly during ICH.

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Myasthenia Gravis

Myasthenia gravis is a neuromusclar disorder. It results in weakness of the skeletal muscles, and can cause double vision and drooping of the eyelid.

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This condition is considered a medical emergency. Urgent care may be required.

A concussion is a mild traumatic brain injury. Usually it occurs after an impact to your head or after a whiplash-type injury. A concussion can cause many severe symptoms that affect brain function.

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Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome

This condition is considered a medical emergency. Urgent care may be required.

Alcohol withdrawal syndrome (AWS) is the name for the symptoms that occur when a heavy drinker suddenly stops or significantly reduces their alcohol intake. With AWS, you may feel mild anxiety and fatigue. You may als...

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Hydrocephalus is a condition that occurs when fluid builds up in the skull and causes the brain to swell. The name literally means "water on the brain."

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Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome

Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome (WKS) is a type of brain disorder caused by a lack of vitamin B1. The syndrome is actually two separate conditions that can occur at the same time. Usually you'll experience symptoms o...

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Multiple Sclerosis Overview

Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a chronic autoimmune disease that affects the central nervous system. MS can cause varying symptoms that appear with a wide range of severity, from mild discomfort to complete disability.

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Beriberi is a term used for vitamin B1, or thiamine, deficiency. Vitamin B1 is found in foods like milk, beans, vegetables, meat, and whole grains.

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Neuroblastoma is a rare cancer that develops in tissues of the sympathetic nervous system (the system that carries brain signals to the body). Early symptoms of the cancer can include fever, diarrhea, and others.

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Labyrinthitis is an inner ear disorder in which a nerve that detects head movement becomes inflamed. Symptoms include dizziness, vertigo, and nausea.

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Acute Cerebellar Ataxia

The cerebellum is the area of the brain responsible for controlling muscle coordination. If it becomes inflamed or damaged, you may suddenly lose coordination. This is called acute cerebellar ataxia (ACA), o...

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All About Abetalipoproteinemia

Abetalipoproteinemia (ABL) is an inherited condition that prevents the body from completely absorbing certain dietary fats. Untreated, it can cause vitamin deficiencies that may have long-term effects on your health.

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Albinism is a rare group of genetic disorders that cause the skin, hair, or eyes to have little or no color. Albinism is also associated with vision problems.

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As Rare as it Gets: Chediak Higashi Syndrome

Chediak-Higashi syndrome (CHS) is an extremely rare form of partial albinism that is accompanied by problems in the immune and nervous systems. Albinism is a lack of color in the skin, hair, and eyes. This specific typ...

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This feature is for informational purposes only and should not be used to diagnose.
Please consult a healthcare professional if you have health concerns.