Oscillopsia is the sensation that the surrounding environment is constantly in motion when it is, in fact, stationary.
Oscillopsia is usually a symptom of conditions that affect eye movement or the eye’s ability to stabilize images, especially during movement.
Keep reading to learn more about oscillopsia, including the common causes and symptoms and how to treat it.
Oscillopsia usually occurs as a result of conditions that affect eye movement or alter how parts of the eye, inner ear, and brain stabilize images and maintain balance.
It often links to types of nystagmus, which is a condition that causes abnormal or involuntary eye movement.
Conditions that affect areas of the brain — especially the cerebellum or parts of the ocular motor system — are another common cause of oscillopsia.
The ocular motor system is a series of biological processes that keep images stable when the head or eyes are moving. Ocular motor system damage tends to impair vision and make it seem as though the world is always in motion, particular when a person is changing the position of their head or moving.
Some of the most common conditions that experts have associated with oscillopsia include:
- neurological conditions, such as seizures, multiple sclerosis, and superior oblique myokymia
- brain or head injuries, especially bilateral vestibular cerebellar injuries
- conditions, such as stroke, that affect the eye muscles or muscles around the eyes
- conditions that affect or damage the inner ear, including Meniere’s disease
- conditions that cause brain inflammation, such as tumors or meningitis
Some people are born with conditions that cause oscillopsia, but most people develop it later in life.
The American Psychological Association describe oscillopsia as “the sensation of perceiving oscillating movement of the environment.”
According to this definition, most people with oscillopsia experience distorted vision — usually the feeling that the world is continuously moving even when it is stationary. This sensation can cause images to:
The visual symptoms of oscillopsia can also cause:
- vertigo, or the sensation that the world or room is spinning
- trouble moving around, walking, or driving
- balance or coordination problems
- trouble focusing on objects
- frustration and stress
- injury, such as from falls or running into objects
- disability, either because of injury or due to an inability to be safely mobile
As most cases of oscillopsia arise at least in part from problems stabilizing images, many people experience it most when they are moving.
Symptoms often start during movement and end when movement stops. However, on rare occasions, symptoms can occur while a person is lying or sitting down or standing still. It may also only manifest itself in certain body positions, depending on the individual.
Oscillopsia is often disabling regardless of its frequency or severity because it causes a loss of balance, vision problems, and nausea.
People with oscillopsia may be unable to live alone. Furthermore, they might feel frustrated because it is hard to describe the symptoms or explain how significantly it affects their lives.
Oscillopsia typically develops as a symptom of an underlying condition. Currently, there is no specific or approved way to treat oscillopsia as a condition in itself. The type of treatment, therefore, depends on the underlying cause.
Nystagmus is a condition of involuntary eye movement. If the cause of oscillopsia is nystagmus, treatment options include:
- special glasses or contact lenses that help clear the vision, which may slow eye movements (usually in congenital cases)
- medication or surgery to treat conditions that cause nystagmus
- stopping drug or alcohol use, if applicable
- in rare cases, surgery to reposition the muscles that control the eyes to allow for a more comfortable head position that limits eye movement
Different types of vision therapy may also help treat conditions that cause erratic or uncontrollable eye movements, such as nystagmus. Vision therapy is generally effective in reducing or even resolving oscillopsia.
Optometric vision therapy (VT) involves doing progressive exercises under the guidance of an optometrist. These exercises help retrain elements of vision and improve visual skills.
For example, they may involve reading lines of text using various tools, such as filters or therapeutic lenses. Alternatively, a person may read the text while standing on a balance board.
Oscillopsia may also respond to various oculomotor-based auditory feedback techniques, which help someone “listen” to their abnormal eye movements and gain more control over them.
There is also some evidence that relaxation practice may help someone learn how to manage the symptoms of oscillopsia more effectively.
Doctors rarely prescribe medication as a treatment for oscillopsia if the cause is a form of nystagmus.
However, a few studies have found that some conditions causing oscillopsia may respond to medications that block types of gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA), which is an amino acid that occurs naturally and functions as a chemical messenger in the brain. Examples of these medications include clonazepam (Klonopin) and gabapentin (Neurontin).
In some cases, anticonvulsant and beta-blocker medications may also help treat conditions that cause oscillopsia.
In some cases, the brain may learn how to adapt to oscillopsia over time.
Infants who have congenital conditions that cause oscillopsia may adapt to it during neural development, although their vision may still have other impairments.
However, the brain typically cannot adapt if oscillopsia symptoms fluctuate over time.
Furthermore, in cases involving severe or irreversible damage to the brain and vestibular ocular system, oscillopsia may be permanent.
In cases where oscillopsia symptoms do not respond to treatment for the underlying cause or there is no known cause, very few other treatment options exist.
People with unexplained vision problems of any kind should speak with an eyecare professional as soon as possible.
Anyone who feels as though their surroundings are constantly moving or has unexplained dizziness, balance problems, or vertigo should also see an ophthalmologist or another type of doctor as soon as possible.
Oscillopsia often has an association with conditions that can worsen without effective, early treatment. Ignoring or failing to treat oscillopsia also greatly increases the risk of injury, primarily because of impaired vision and balance.
Oscillopsia is a symptom and not an underlying medical condition. As a result, a specific diagnosis does not exist for it.
However, an ophthalmologist will diagnose the cause of oscillopsia.
To begin this process, they will usually ask questions about the person’s oscillopsia, such as:
- when it happens
- what they see or feel
- whether it affects one or both eyes
- if symptoms are better or worse in different positions or during certain activities
- when it began
- how often it happens
- how severe or disabling it is
- whether other visual or central nervous system symptoms occur with or independently of oscillopsia
Once the ophthalmologist has evaluated the symptoms, they will likely take a full medical history and run a series of tests to diagnose the underlying condition responsible. These tests may include:
- neurological and neuro-ophthalmological exams
- MRI scans and magnetic resonance angiography
- CT scans
- electrocardiogram (EKG) and echocardiogram
- lumbar puncture
- blood and urine tests
- scanning laser
- psychological testing
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Common risk factors for developing oscillopsia include:
- brain damage, tumors, or injury
- damage to the extrinsic eye muscles
- taking lithium or anti-epileptic or aminoglycoside medications
- alcohol or drug abuse
- vitamin B-12 deficiency
- family history of eye conditions, especially nystagmus
- inner ear damage or disease
- eye conditions, such as cataracts, focusing problems, and strabismus
- albinism (lack of pigmentation in the skin)
People with oscillopsia usually have trouble seeing clearly, especially during movement, and feel as though their surroundings are moving when they are not.
Oscillopsia is a symptom of several conditions that affect the eye muscles, the inner ear, and parts of the central nervous system, including the brain.
The treatment plan and outlook for each individual vary widely depending on the underlying cause.
In many cases, speaking with an ophthalmologist as soon as possible about any unexplained vision problems reduces the risk of symptoms becoming worse or permanent.