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Dealing With Dancing Eyes?

What causes the eye disorder nystagmus? Are there any exercises or natural remedies you can recommend that would reduce or eliminate its effects? Is it true that it can't be cured?

Answer (Published 4/12/2012)

Nystagmus, sometimes called "dancing eyes," is a condition in which one or both eyes move uncontrollably quickly, usually from side to side but sometimes up and down or in a circle (rotary nystagmus). This disorder stems from abnormal functioning of areas of the brain that control eye movements.

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Nystagmus can reduce visual acuity and sometimes is associated with other visual problems such as strabismus, in which the eye turns in, out, up or down.  Symptoms can also include sensitivity to light, dizziness and trouble seeing in the dark.

Most cases of nystagmus are present at birth or develop in infancy, usually between six weeks and three months of age. They are referred to as Infantile Nystagmus Syndrome and usually are mild and don't worsen. Rarely, however, some of these problems are related to congenital eye diseases. Children with nystagmus don't see the world as moving back and forth or shaky and may not even be aware of the eye movements while they're happening. However, adults who develop nystagmus may see things in constant motion.

When this eye disorder occurs later in life, it is called "acquired" nystagmus. There are many causes, but the most common is the use of certain medications, including the anti-seizure drug Dilantin and sedatives that affect the function of the labyrinth, the part of the inner ear that senses movements of the head. Excessive alcohol intake can also be a cause. Less commonly, acquired nystagmus stems from head injuries, inner ear infections (labyrinthitis), or Meniere's disease, an inner-ear disorder that intermittently triggers vertigo. Other possible causes are stroke or a deficiency of vitamin B12 or vitamin B1 (thiamin). Multiple sclerosis, brain tumors or other neurological diseases can also cause nystagmus.

Treatment for acquired nystagmus depends on the cause - it usually goes away if it is drug or alcohol-related and you discontinue the drug or stop drinking. Contact lenses or eyeglasses may be needed to help address the vision problems associated with nystagmus, but they won't correct the underlying disorder. Sometimes holding your head in a specific position reduces the eye movements, and in some cases, botox injections can help patients with severe shakiness in their vision by relaxing eye muscles. Occasionally, eye muscle surgery may be recommended to improve vision; but again, it will not cure the nystagmus. If vision is affected, magnifying devices, good lighting and large print reading materials may help you see better. I know of no exercises or natural remedies for nystagmus.

Andrew Weil, M.D.

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