Congenital Nystagmus (Infantile Nystagmus)

Updated: Jun 28, 2017
  • Author: Mark Ventocilla, OD, FAAO; Chief Editor: Edsel Ing, MD, MPH, FRCSC  more...
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Overview

Background

Congenital nystagmus (also known as infantile nystagmus) is a clinical sign that may take many different forms. Involuntary, rhythmic eye movements are characteristic, as they are in acquired nystagmus. Waveform, amplitude, and frequency can vary with changes in focal distance, direction of gaze, and under monocular or binocular viewing conditions.

Oscillations are usually horizontal in direction but may be primarily vertical, torsional, or any combination of these three. Infantile nystagmus often is associated with other ocular conditions that impair visual acuity and occasionally can herald life-threatening conditions. Prompt assessment by an ophthalmologist with knowledge of infantile nystagmus to establish the need for and urgency of additional evaluation is extremely important. [1] Some other associated conditions include achromatopsia, Leber congenital amaurosis, anorexia, and ocular albinism.

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Pathophysiology

Few patients are noted to have nystagmus onset at birth. The term infantile is probably more accurate than congenital and includes nystagmus that presents within the first 6 months of life. This disorder classically has been divided into afferent (sensory deficit) nystagmus, which is due to visual impairment, and efferent (idiopathic infantile) nystagmus, which is due to oculomotor abnormality, with most cases being sensory in origin. It is believed that the nystagmus may reflect a failure of early sensorimotor integration.

Data from eye movement recordings have conclusively shown that waveform alone is not a reliable method of distinguishing between these 2 entities. Therefore, it is essential that all infants with nystagmus be evaluated thoroughly for a primary sensory cause. In addition, it recently has been suggested that the following 3 additional subtypes of infantile nystagmus exist: (1) nystagmus associated with albinism, (2) latent and manifest latent nystagmus, and (3) spasmus nutans.

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Epidemiology

Frequency

United States

The precise incidence and prevalence of nystagmus is unknown.

Mortality/Morbidity

Visual morbidity associated with nystagmus relates most closely to the underlying disorder affecting the visual or ocular motor system, which is responsible for the fixation instability. Infantile nystagmus rarely is associated with a life-threatening disorder.

Race

No reported racial predilection exists among patients with infantile nystagmus.

Sex

Infantile nystagmus affects males and females equally.

Age

Most patients with infantile nystagmus present within the first several months of life.

Nystagmus present at birth or prior to age 2 months is more likely to be idiopathic in nature or due to neurologic dysfunction. Sensory deficit nystagmus most commonly presents at age 2-3 months. Further investigation of the visual system is warranted in these cases. Nystagmus associated with albinism has characteristics similar to idiopathic nystagmus but usually is absent until after age 2 months.

Nystagmus that presents after age 6 months is considered late infantile or childhood nystagmus and carries a graver prognosis. The exception is spasmus nutans, with onset in children aged 4 months to 3 years. Resolution of this condition usually occurs within a year of onset. Chiasmal glioma can present in an identical manner to spasmus nutans.

Latent or manifest latent nystagmus often is discovered after the first few months of life, but it most often is associated with infantile strabismus and can be identified by its unique characteristics.

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