Nystagmus is continuous uncontrolled movement of the eyes. The movements may be in any direction. This means that the eyes will look like they are moving from side to side or up and down or sometimes in circles. The most common form of nystagmus in young children is congenital nystagmus (also called infantile nystagmus) occurring at birth or in the first few months of life. A separate form of nystagmus called acquired nystagmus occurs later on in life.


Medical text written February 2013 by Professor C Harris. Last updated April 2016 by Professor C Harris, Professor of Neuroscience, Plymouth University, Plymouth, UK.

What are the symptoms?

Nystagmus is not painful. Problems resulting from congenital or early onset nystagmus tend to improve until vision stabilizes around the age of five or six years of age.

What are the causes?

Congenital nystagmus can be caused by either a problem with the eye itself or with a problem with the visual pathway from the eye to the brain. All children are born with a visual system that is not fully developed. This vision continues to develop in the first few years of life as a result of the eye and brain being stimulated by what we see. If a child is born with an eye condition which affects vision such as cataracts, glaucoma, some conditions of the retina or albinism then their visual system may not develop normally.

Children who have learning disabilities, such as Down syndrome, may also develop nystagmus. Nystagmus can also be caused by some inherited neurological conditions.

How is it diagnosed?

Because nystagmus may be the first sign of a problem of the eye or the brain, it is vital that when it first develops the child is referred to an ophthalmologist (eye specialist) or a neurologist. Occasionally no visual condition can be detected and the nystagmus is termed congenital idiopathic nystagmus or congenital motor nystagmus.

How is it treated?

Management of nystagmus in children involves giving them plenty of stimulation in the early years to help them make best use of the vision they have. It is very likely that an ophthalmology clinic will monitor the condition and this may mean seeing a number of different professionals, such as an ophthalmologist (specialist eye doctor), an orthoptist (specialist in eye movements), and an optometrist (specialist in carrying out assessments for low vision). Children should have a vision assessment and access to aids that will help with low vision. Treatment for any underlying eye condition, such as glaucoma will also be necessary. Most children with the condition attend mainstream school with the right support.

Inheritance patterns and prenatal diagnosis

Inheritance patterns
These depend upon the underlying visual disorder. Congenital idiopathic nystagmus may also be inherited. Affected families should be referred to a genetics centre for information and support.

Prenatal diagnosis

Is there support?

Nystagmus Network

Helpline: 0845 634 2630
Email: info@nystagmusnet.org
Website: nystagmusnet.org

The Network is a Registered Charity in England and Wales No. 803440. It provides information and support for people with nystagmus, and their families and professionals. The Network holds events and funds research.

Group details last updated February 2016.

Back to A-Z Conditions