Eye movements - uncontrollable

Alternative names
Back and forth eye movements; Involuntary eye movements; Nystagmus; Rapid eye movements from side to side; Uncontrolled eye movements

Uncontrollable eye movements are involuntary, rapid, and repetitive movement of the eyes.


Nystagmus refers to rapid involuntary movements of the eyes that may be from side to side (horizontal nystagmus), up and down (vertical nystagmus) or rotary. Depending on the cause, these movements may be in both eyes or in just one eye. The term “dancing eyes” has been used in regional dialect to describe nystagmus.

The involuntary eye movements of nystagmus are caused by abnormal function in the areas of the brain that control eye movements. The exact nature of these disorders is poorly understood. Nystagmus may be either congenital (present at birth) or may be acquired (caused by disease or injury later in life).


Congenital nystagmus is more common than acquired nystagmus. It is usually mild, does not change in severity, and is not associated with any other disorder.

Affected people are not aware of the eye movements, although they may be noticed by a careful observer. If the movements are of large magnitude, visual acuity (sharpness of vision) may be less than 20/20. Surgery may improve visual acuity.

Rarely, nystagmus occurs as a result of congenital diseases of the eye that cause poor vision. Although this is rare, an ophthalmologist should evaluate any child with nystagmus to check for this.


A less common cause of nystagmus is disease or injury of the central nervous system.

In young people the most common cause of acquired nystagmus is Head injury from motor vehicle accidents. In older people the most common cause is stroke (blood vessel blockage in the brain). Any disease of the brain (such as multiple sclerosis or brain tumors) can cause nystagmus if the areas controlling eye movements are damaged.

Because control of eye movements is affected by input from the labyrinth (the part of the inner ear that senses movement and position), inner ear disorders such as Meniere’s disease can also lead to acquired nystagmus. Other causes may include Dilantin (an antiseizure medication) or alcohol intoxication.

Nystagmus may be observed through the following procedure. If the affected person spins around for about 30 seconds, stops, and tries to stare at an object, the eyes will first move slowly in one direction, then move rapidly in the opposite direction. The orientation of these alternating movements (side to side, up and down, or in a circular pattern) depends on the type of nystagmus.

Common Causes

Nystagmus is a symptom of many different disorders. Your health care provider will take a careful history and perform a thorough physical examination, which will emphasize the nervous system and inner ear.

Questions asked in a medical history may cover the following areas:

  • Time pattern       o When was it first noticed?       o How often does it occur?       o Has it ever happened before?       o Is it getting better, worse, or staying the same?  
  • Quality       o Are there side-to-side eye movements?       o Are there up-and-down eye movements?  
  • What medications are being taken?  
  • What other symptoms are present?

Diagnostic tests that may be performed include:

  • CT scan of the head or MRI of the head  
  • Electro-oculography: An electrical method of measuring eye movements using tiny electrodes.

Home Care

There is no therapy for most cases of congenital nystagmus. Availability of treatment for acquired nystagmus will vary with the cause. In most cases, except for those caused by Dilantin or alcohol intoxication, nystagmus is irreversible.

Call your health care provider if

Nystagmus is detected or suspected.

Johns Hopkins patient information

Last revised: December 8, 2012
by Brenda A. Kuper, M.D.

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All ArmMed Media material is provided for information only and is neither advice nor a substitute for proper medical care. Consult a qualified healthcare professional who understands your particular history for individual concerns.