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What is Rotatory Nystagmus?

By Sarah Sullins
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Rotatory nystagmus refers to the involuntary rotation of the eye, and many times is known as dancing eyes. This issue can either be congenital or acquired. The problem is caused by an abnormality in the part of the brain that directs movement of the eyes. A person with rotatory nystagmus will experience rotating eye movements that are rapid, involuntary, and repetitive. The movement of the eye cannot be controlled and may exist in one or both eyes, depending on what the cause of the nystagmus is.

If the condition is congenital, it means a person was born with this issue. Many times the condition will be subtle, and even be unnoticed by the person with the problem. It may be seen, though, by someone else. If the rotation is great, the person affected may have problems with his vision. Sometimes surgery is needed to improve a person’s eyesight when he has rotatory nystagmus.

On rare occasions, a person may have congenital nystagmus due to an eye disease that he was born with. This type is rare, but does occur in some people. Children that have been diagnosed as having any type of nystagmus are generally tested for diseases of the eye, in case it is the cause of the rapid eye movements.

Acquired nystagmus usually occurs because of an injury, toxin, or disease. Most commonly, toxins are the cause of rapid eye movements that are acquired. Certain medications, drugs, and alcohol can damage the area of the brain that is in charge of controlling the movement of the eye. Injuries, such as car accidents and motorcycle accidents, can also lead to rotatory nystagmus.

Certain diseases or illnesses, such as strokes and inner ear disorders, can cause nystagmus in a person. Any disorder that affects the brain, like multiple sclerosis, Whipple’s disease, and Horner’s Syndrome, can cause damage to the area that controls eye movement as well. Tumors of the brain can also be responsible for rotatory nystagmus.

There are certain types of medications that can most often be used to treat the different kinds of nystagmus, including rotational. Surgery can also be performed. The type of surgery that is used to reduce the amount of movement that is caused by nystagmus is known as tenotomy. It is thought that this type of surgery can improve the eyesight of a person that is affected with nystagmus as well.

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Discussion Comments
By anon990769 — On May 08, 2015

I wish that in these articles, that the writer(s) would go "all out" and specify what part of the brain is affected. Go ahead - name it.

As someone who is experiencing nystagmus, that may be attributable to initiation of the prescription drug Verapamil, the more I know the better, because sure as heck the physicians do not go into that kind of depth. Have a problem with a prescription? They'll change it to something else. Doesn't matter what. How do you know you can take a prescription if you don't know if you have a problem with "X" that would contraindicate use. It's a mess.

The real thrill is in being treated for anything - cardiac - or anything else - before there is a definitive diagnosis, which, of course, dilutes the diagnostic process.

By seHiro — On Aug 31, 2011

One of the more fascinating studies I've heard of was this one about testing for nystagmus and what causes it so that people could develop better nystagmus treatment techniques.

In the study, doctors found that nystagmus could be induced on purpose by flooding the ear canals with warm or cold water. It fooled the pathways of the inner ear responsible for balance and how your vision tracking relates to it, and made the test patients get nystagmus!

It went away after they stopped rinsing the ear canals, though. Apparently if you get nystagmus on purpose from doing this test, it means your inner ear's pathways are intact and healthy. Weird, huh?

By SkittisH — On Aug 30, 2011

@TheGraham - Yeah, that kind of info would probably scare many people into quitting drinking. Unfortunately for them, throwing away their alcohol still might not save them from getting nystagmus at some point, because some more regular household substances can also cause it )although temporarily, not permanently.)

For example, did you know that caffeine can induce nystagmus? You can also get nystagmus from nicotine, and from many anti-epilepsy medications.

By TheGraham — On Aug 30, 2011

@aishia - Yeah, alcohol works fast if it's going to do damage. You really could get drunk and wake up with a condition like rotational nystagmus (not to mention liver failure).

As for which kind of alcohol causes nystagmus, you're not going to like this, but...all of them. Nystagmus caused by alcohol or other toxins is basically your body's eye tracking systems -- the ability to visually track objects -- are getting lagged down because the brain's signals aren't sending correctly.

In many places, police officers will test you by looking in your eyes and making you follow moving objects with your eyes to determine if you were driving intoxicated -- and what they are doing is testing for nystagmus.

By aishia — On Aug 29, 2011

Okay, so I've known about nystagmus since I was a teen because a kid in my class had albinism, and one of her side conditions from that was nystagmus. it was the rotatory kind, though -- her eyes would move back and forth side to side involuntarily.

Anyway, I had no idea that you could acquire nystagmus, I thought you could just be born with it. The thought of drinking the wrong alcohol and getting rotary nystagmus is really scary -- I mean, alcohol's not in your system for very long, so it must set in pretty fast if the toxins in the alcohol caused it, right?

Does that mean certain alcohols are causing permanent damage to how your brain controls your eyes? If so, I want to know which alcohol does this so I can avoid it -- yikes!

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