Merck Manual

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Mickie Hamiter

, MD, New York Presbyterian Columbia

Reviewed/Revised May 2023

Nystagmus is a rhythmic movement of the eyes that can have various causes.

Vestibular disorders can result in nystagmus because the vestibular system and the oculomotor nuclei are interconnected. The presence of vestibular nystagmus helps identify vestibular disorders and sometimes distinguishes central from peripheral vertigo.

Vestibular nystagmus has a slow component caused by the vestibular input and a quick, corrective component that causes movement in the opposite direction. The direction of the nystagmus is defined by the direction of the quick component because it is easier to see. Nystagmus may be rotary, vertical, or horizontal and may occur spontaneously or when gazing or moving the head.

Initial inspection for nystagmus is done with the patient lying supine and with unfocused gaze (+30 diopter or Frenzel lenses can be used to prevent gaze fixation). The patient is then slowly rotated to a left and then to a right lateral position. The direction and duration of nystagmus are noted.

If nystagmus is not detected, the Dix-Hallpike (Barany) maneuver is done.

In the Dix-Hallpike maneuver, the following occur:

  • The patient sits erect on an examination table so that when lying back, the head extends beyond the end of the examination table.

  • With support, the patient is rapidly lowered to a horizontal position, and the head is extended back 45° below horizontal and rotated 45° to the left.

  • The patient is told to fixate the eyes on a single location; visual fixation can shorten or even abolish nystagmus, so the maneuver is ideally done with the person wearing Frenzel lenses to make visual fixation on anything impossible.

  • The patient is returned to an upright position, and the maneuver is repeated with rotation to the right.

  • Then the patient lies face down so that the head remains turned at 45° degrees and the head hangs over the examination table by about 20°.

  • Vertigo and nystagmus can take about 5 to 10 seconds (sometimes up to 30 seconds) to appear (latency). Symptoms last 10 to 30 seconds, then decrease and disappear (ie, fatigue).

Direction and duration of nystagmus and development of vertigo are noted. Nystagmus occurs when the head is turned to the affected ear in benign paroxysmal positional vertigo Benign Paroxysmal Positional Vertigo In benign paroxysmal positional vertigo, short (< 60 seconds) episodes of vertigo occur with certain head positions. Nausea and nystagmus develop. Diagnosis is clinical. Treatment involves... read more (BPPV). Any position or maneuver that causes nystagmus should be repeated to see whether nystagmus fatigues.

Nystagmus due to BPPV has a latency period of 3 to 30 seconds and is fatigable and torsional, beating toward the affected ear. In contrast, nystagmus secondary to a central nervous system disorder has no latency period and does not fatigue. During induced nystagmus, the patient is instructed to focus on an object. Nystagmus caused by peripheral disorders is inhibited by visual fixation. Because Frenzel lenses prevent visual fixation, they must be removed to assess visual fixation.

Caloric stimulation of the ear canal induces nystagmus in a person with an intact vestibular system. This procedure is performed with the patient supine and the head elevated 30°; each ear is irrigated sequentially with cold water (30° C). Alternately, warm water (40 to 44° C) is used, taking care not to burn the patient with overly hot water. Cold water causes nystagmus toward the side opposite to the affected ear; warm water irrigated into the affected ear causes nystagmus toward the same side as the affected ear. A mnemonic device is COWS (Cold to the Opposite and Warm to the Same). For patients with tympanic membrane perforation, warm and cold air may be substituted for water. Quantification of caloric response is best done with formal (computerized) electronystagmography Testing Earache, hearing loss, otorrhea, tinnitus, and vertigo are the principal symptoms of ear problems. In addition to the ears, nose, nasopharynx, and paranasal sinuses, the teeth, tongue, tonsils... read more or videonystagmography Testing Earache, hearing loss, otorrhea, tinnitus, and vertigo are the principal symptoms of ear problems. In addition to the ears, nose, nasopharynx, and paranasal sinuses, the teeth, tongue, tonsils... read more . Failure to induce nystagmus or a > 20 to 25% difference in duration between sides suggests a lesion on the side of the decreased response.

NOTE: This is the Professional Version. CONSUMERS: View Consumer Version
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