Your eyes are capable of moving in many directions to view and track things in your environment. These movements are usually voluntary, but there can be times when your eyes move involuntarily, too.
It’s possible that some health conditions may cause your eyes to move involuntarily in a specific way. One of these movements involves your eyes rolling back into your head.
There are several conditions that can cause your eyes to roll back in your head. Below, we’ll discuss each condition in more detail, the symptoms to look out for, and the potential treatment options.
A seizure is a burst of uncontrolled electrical activity in your brain. The brain is your body’s control center, sending and receiving messages via nerve cells that use electrical signals to communicate with each other.
The abnormal electrical activity from a seizure can temporarily disrupt various processes. This can lead to a variety of symptoms — including eyes rolling back in the head.
Some of the other common symptoms include:
- convulsions, which are uncontrolled muscle contractions and relaxations that cause twitching or jerky movements
- stiffening of the body or limbs
- mental confusion
- loss of consciousness
- biting your tongue
- losing control of your bladder or bowels (incontinence)
Most seizures last from a few seconds to a few minutes. Seizures can be an isolated episode, meaning that not everyone who experiences a seizure will have another one.
Causes of seizures
Seizures are often associated with a chronic condition called epilepsy. However, you can also have a seizure without having epilepsy.
Besides epilepsy, some potential causes of seizures include:
- fever, such as in febrile seizures in children or due to infections like meningitis
- electrolyte imbalances
- sleep deprivation
- certain medications, such as some types of antidepressants and pain medications
- withdrawal from alcohol or drugs
- drug overdose
- head injuries
- brain tumors
Treatment for seizures
The specific treatment for a seizure depends on the underlying condition that caused it. Your doctor will first work to determine the cause of your seizure before recommending a treatment plan.
When to get medical care
Seek immediate medical care if you or someone else:
- has a seizure for the first time
- has a seizure following an injury
- gets injured while having a seizure
- is unresponsive or not breathing after a seizure
- has a seizure that lasts longer than a few minutes
- has several seizures in a row
- has underlying health conditions, such as a heart condition or diabetes, and has a seizure
Epilepsy is a chronic neurological condition that causes unprovoked, recurrent seizures. You’re typically diagnosed with epilepsy when you’ve had two or more seizures that can’t be explained by an existing medical condition.
Generalized seizures affect both hemispheres of the brain while focal seizures impact a specific area. Within each type of seizure, there are also many further subtypes.
Causes of epilepsy
Epilepsy can have many potential causes. However, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), the cause is unknown in up to 50 percent of cases.
Some known causes of epilepsy include genetics, since epilepsy can run in families.
Epilepsy can also be caused by damage to the brain due to:
- head injuries
- brain tumors
- lack of oxygen at birth
- infections, such as meningitis, encephalitis, or HIV
- Alzheimer’s disease
Treatment for epilepsy
Epilepsy can be managed using:
- Anti-seizure medications: There are many types of anti-seizure medication. According to the
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)medications are effective for 2 out of 3 people with epilepsy.
- Surgery: In people with focal seizures, surgery may be used to remove the area of the brain in which the seizure originates.
- Vagus nerve stimulation (VNS): VNS may be used when medication isn’t effective for managing seizures. It uses a device implanted under the skin of your chest to stimulate the vagus nerve, helping to reduce seizures.
- Dietary changes: Following a ketogenic diet may be beneficial for individuals with some types of epilepsy.
Nystagmus is a condition in which your eyes move uncontrollably. This movement can be either fast or slow. It can also involve a combination of fast and slow movements.
There are several types of nystagmus. One of these is vertical nystagmus, in which the eyes move up and down uncontrollably. When this happens, it may sometimes appear as if someone’s eyes are rolling back in their head.
Other symptoms that can occur with nystagmus include:
- dizziness or vertigo
- blurry vision
- oscillopsia, which is when you feel like the world around you is shaking or vibrating
- holding your head in a tilted or turned position
- sensitivity to light
Causes of nystagmus
It’s possible to be born with nystagmus, which is known as congenital nystagmus. You can also develop nystagmus due to a health condition. Some conditions that are known to cause uncontrollable eye movements include:
- head injury
- brain tumor
- multiple sclerosis
- inner ear problems like Meniere’s disease
- eye conditions, such as cataracts or crossed eyes
- using alcohol or illegal drugs
- certain medications, such as anti-seizure medications or lithium
Treatment for nystagmus
Congenital nystagmus can’t be cured, but eyeglasses or contact lenses can help improve vision.
In rare cases surgery may be recommended to adjust the positioning of the muscles that control eye movement so that you don’t have to tilt or turn your head as much.
It’s possible that acquired nystagmus may go away. This happens when the underlying cause is treated.
When to see a doctor
Make an appointment with your doctor or healthcare provider if you notice symptoms of nystagmus that you haven’t had before.
When someone loses consciousness, it’s possible that their eyes may roll back into their head before or when they fall down. Typically, an individual is only unconscious for a minute or two after they’ve fainted.
Prior to fainting, you may experience a variety of symptoms, including:
Treatment for fainting
The best way to immediately treat a fainting episode is to:
- move to a cool, quiet area
- lie down or sit down with your head between your knees
- drink some cool water
Most people recover from a fainting spell within a few minutes to hours. If your fainting is caused by a specific underlying condition, your doctor will work to treat that.
When to seek medical care
Make an appointment with your doctor or healthcare provider if you or someone else:
- faints or loses consciousness with no obvious cause
- has repeated fainting or dizzy spells
Get immediate medical attention if you or someone else:
- loses consciousness following an injury
- gets injured while fainting
- has an underlying health condition and a sudden fainting spell
- is unresponsive or not breathing after a fainting spell
Conditions that affect the midbrain can also result in unusual upward or downward eye movements known as vertical gaze palsy.
Your vertical gaze is controlled by your midbrain and, as a result, damage to this region may affect the way your eyes move up or down.
Causes of vertical gaze palsy
It’s important to work with your doctor to determine the underlying cause of this condition. Some of the most common causes of vertical gaze palsy include:
- a brain tumor in the midbrain region or pineal gland
- hydrocephalus, a buildup of fluid in the skull
- a stroke in the midbrain
- neurological conditions like multiple sclerosis, Huntington’s disease, or Parkinson’s disease
- infections such as Whipple’s disease or encephalitis
- a drug overdose
- traumatic brain injury
Your eyes can roll back into your head for several reasons. The most common causes include seizures, fainting spells, or an eye condition called nystagmus.
Many times, your eyes rolling back and other accompanying symptoms is due to an underlying health condition. Oftentimes, your symptoms will go away when the underlying condition is treated. However, sometimes an exact cause can’t be identified.
See your doctor if you have symptoms of nystagmus or fainting spells that are unexplained or may be due to medications. Seek immediate care for seizures or fainting spells that last a long time, lead to unresponsiveness, or happen after an injury.