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What exactly is an Ocular Migraine?

Most people hear the word “migraine” and automatically think about the common pounding headache. Many, though, suffer from visual disturbances called ocular migraines, which can affect one or both of the eyes. They cause temporary, painless, visual impairment that can appear suddenly, creating the sensation of looking through a cracked window. This can be frightening, but ocular migraines typically resolve themselves within a half hour.


A variety of visual symptoms have been known to accompany ocular migraines. These symptoms may include a scotoma, which is an enlarging blind spot in your central vision. The blind spot has flashing or flickering lights, or wavy/zig-zag lines surrounding it and usually enlarges, moving across your field of vision. About 60% of migraine sufferers also experience what is called a prodrome, or an early symptom that indicates the onset of the migraine. These symptoms can be subtle and may include fatigue, cravings and/or changes in mood.


If an ocular migraine is followed by a throbbing, typically one sided headache, this is called a “migraine with aura”. In this instance, the visual disturbance is referred to as an aura, rather than ocular migraine. Migraine auras are typically visual in nature, but can affect hearing, speech and smell, and cause tingling or numbness in the face, arms and/or legs. Statistics related specifically to ocular migraines are unavailable, but an estimated 16-18% of women and 6% of men suffer from migraines in general.


It appears that migraines are triggered by the release of inflammatory substances in the brain, affecting the nerves and blood vessels. However, the question of what exactly causes the spontaneous release of these inflammatory substances remains unanswered. There are also a few outside variable triggers which include stress, caffeine, aged cheese, red wine, food additives and artificial sweeteners. Generally, migraines have a genetic basis and some studies say that 70% of sufferers have a family history of migraines.


Since ocular migraines typically resolve themselves within 30 minutes and are generally harmless, they usually require no treatment. If they become bothersome, try cutting out some of the aforementioned outside variable trigger foods and drinks. You may also consider keeping a log of when the visual disturbances occur to help find a pattern in diet, stress, and/or activities. It is always a good idea to consult your optometrist and have regular comprehensive eye exams whenever you have visual disturbances to rule out sight-threatening conditions, such as a detached retina, which required immediate attention. If you are suffering from any of these visual symptoms, click here to schedule your next exam.