A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

I can make my eyes shimmy. Is that normal?

January 13, 1978

Dear Cecil:

Due to our capitalist medical "system," there are a number of things that I can't get the answer to because I can't afford a doctor. First, I can wiggle my eyes. That is, I can make them shimmy rapidly a small distance back and forth. No one else I know can do that. Is it normal? Second, I can do something inside my body which results in a strange sensation. It feels like it is around my stomach or below. What is it?

Cecil replies:

First off, please don't mistake good old Uncle Cecil for a qualified diagnostician. If you think you have a problem, get it checked out. There are many ways of getting around the "capitalist medical system," one of which is called Not Paying Your Bills.

The eye condition you describe is normal, up to a point. It's called nystagmus, "the involuntary oscillation of the pupil," and we all do it when our eyes have to change focus rapidly. For example, when you're driving down the highway and turn to look at the telephone poles along the side of the road, your eyes jump from one pole to the next, keeping each in focus for a split second. However, when you can wiggle your eyes at will, it's a sign of something abnormal, although not necessarily dangerous. Medical science classifies at least nine different degrees of pathological nystagmus--it can be totally innocuous (a "parlor trick," as one medical dictionary describes it), or it can be a sign of brain damage, in which case you're dead by now. No doubt it's nothing to worry about, but I still wouldn't keep it up too long for the sake of amusing your friends. The muscles involved can be strained, and hurt your ability to keep your eyes in focus.

As for that strange sensation in your stomach ... well, either you're belching, tightening the muscle that holds your guts in, or dying of any one of several hundred exotic diseases. There's no way to tell, sport--see a doctor if it bugs you.

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