Nystagmus (Shaky Eyes) And how it’s related to Balance Disorders

  • By Dizzy & Vertigo Institute
  • October 31, 2021

The eyes play an important role in our balance system. They collect information about our environment in order to establish what stability is. But if the eyes are shaky, as is the case with nystagmus, it can be challenging to sustain balance.

What is Nystagmus?

Nystagmus is a condition where the eyes move rapidly and uncontrollably. They can move side to side (horizontal nystagmus), up and down (vertical nystagmus), and in a circle (rotary nystagmus).

There isn’t an exact way that nystagmus is experienced, per se. The movement can slow down or speed up. It usually happens in both eyes. And oftentimes, people with nystagmus will tilt or turn their heads to slow eye movements and see more clearly.

Nystagmus symptoms:

  • Sensitivity to light
  • Sensation the world is moving
  • Dizziness and imbalance
  • Visual Disorientation
  • Nighttime vision issues
  • Vision problems
  • Difficulty fixating on objects 

Nystagmus is usually related to the following “causes”:

  • Having a family history of nystagmus
  • A wide range of eye problems including cataracts, strabismus, and focusing problems
  • Use of certain medications, such as lithium or anti-seizure medications
  • Central nervous system conditions
  • Stroke
  • Head injury
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Alcohol or drug use
  • Inner ear problems, such as Meniere’s Disease or BPPV

What does nystagmus have to do with the vestibular system?

Well, of course, if your eyes are shaky you’re going to be feeling dizzy from time to time. So there’s the obvious connection. But it goes a little deeper. 

Nystagmus and Vestibular System

In Vestibular Clinics such as ours, nystagmus is actually an important “tracker” of sorts when we’re analyzing a dizzy patient. Because the eyes and the vestibular system work in unison to create balance, when there’s miscommunication or malfunction between the two, it creates tell-tale signs that point to what is going wrong.

For instance, when we’re running tests on patients for BPPV, we actually look to provoke nystagmus for a moment.

We put a pair of Frenzel goggles on the patient, use the Dix-Hallpike Maneuver which is meant to provoke dizziness, and the goggles capture video on the eye movements. We’re looking for certain types of nystagmus which informs us of which semicircular canal in the inner ear is the source of BPPV.

Given that the primary symptom of nystagmus is dizziness, we often see patients at the Dizzy & Vertigo Institute with nystagmus. And if there is a vestibular disorder at play, then we can evaluate the source of the problem causing nystagmus.

When the vestibular system is not involved, working with your physician or optometrist (your eye doctor) can help to drill down the underlying cause. 

If you have any questions about nystagmus and your dizziness, we’re here to help. 

Give us a call at (310) 954-2207 or fill out our contact form.

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