It is helpful to classify nystagmus as either congenital (present at birth or within months after birth) or acquired.
As the name implies, the onset of congenital nystagmus is early, usually the first few months of life. Because of this early onset, the brain is able to suppress the motion. Therefore these infants do not perceive the cyclic wobbly eye motion associated with nystagmus. There are 2 basic subtypes: congenital motor, and sensory.
Congenital motor nystagmus (infantile nystagmus) is usually present in both eyes and symmetric. It occurs during the first few months of life and is often inherited as an x-linked trait (FRMD7 gene). The compensatory head turn that minimizes the nystagmus is usually established by 2-4 months of age, or as soon as the child gains head and neck control. These children have relatively good visual potential (usually around 20/50 or better), particularly when they assume the compensatory head turn.
Congenital sensory nystagmus is due to the lack of the fixation reflex secondary to neonatal blindness. Any disease that results in bilateral neonatal blindness such as congenital cataract, corneal opacities, congenital optic nerve atrophy or hypoplasia, and congenital retinal disorders, can cause this form of congenital nystagmus. The pattern of sensory nystagmus is usually indistinguishable from congenital motor nystagmus, except that the nystagmus has a larger amplitude and the movements show poor fixation with a searching character. The onset is later than that seen in congenital motor. Patients with sensory nystagmus rarely adopt a compensatory face turn because their visual potential is not very good despite changing head position.
Acquired nystagmus, may be a sign of a serious neurological condition, and therefore warrants a neurology consult. Neurologic disease involving any part of the brain can cause nystagmus and is often associated with the perception of the environment moving, or oscillopsia. Only patients with acquired nystagmus will experience oscillopsia; as these patients do not have the neural plasticity to suppress the shaking image. Oscillopsia, therefore, is an important indication that the nystagmus is acquired.