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Impacting between 15 and 20 percent of the adult population, the Journal of Stroke reports that a migraine is the most frequently encountered neurological disorder. The U.S. National Library of Medicine (NLM) publishes that a migraine is a form of headache that is recurring. It can cause pain in the head, nausea, sensitivity to light and sound, and weakness.
An ocular migraine, or a visual headache, is when visual disturbances accompany a migraine. (Learn More) Flashes of light, blind spots, zigzag patterns, shimmering stars, and spots are common symptoms of an ocular migraine. It may be triggered by hormones, stress, nutrition, environmental, or genetic causes. (Learn More)
Generally, an ocular migraine is not a serious medical condition. It can usually be managed with calming techniques, resting, and some lifestyle changes. (Learn More)
An ocular migraine may be more serious and require medical attention in some cases. Medications, natural remedies, and over-the-counter products may all be useful in treating and preventing an ocular migraine. (Learn More)
Ocular Migraines Explained
Mayo Clinic publishes that "ocular migraine" may be a term that is used to describe two different conditions: a migraine aura or a retinal migraine. A migraine aura is a form of visual headache that is identified by changes in vision in tandem with a headache. This is not generally thought of as a serious medical condition.
A retinal migraine is rarer and significant. It may occur with a headache or before one, and it includes short bursts of blindness or impaired vision. It typically only affects one eye.
Migraine aura is a more common form of an ocular migraine. It is caused by chemical changes in the visual cortex of the brain, Mayo Clinic explains. This electrical wave flows through the part of the brain that processes visual signals (the visual cortex) and activates the region, which in turn impairs normal visual functions. The aura may move and grow as it progresses and typically lasts between 10 and 30 minutes on average.
The American Migraine Foundation reports that about a quarter to a third of all people who struggle with migraines suffer from visual aura symptoms. An ocular migraine can also be called an ophthalmic migraine, or an eye-related migraine, that has visual symptoms and may also come with a headache. A migraine is not just a headache, however. It often involves a debilitating throbbing or pounding in the head.
Recognizing an Ocular Migraine
Symptoms of a migraine aura can be both positive or negative in nature. Positive symptoms include things that you can see, whereas negative symptoms involve missing portions of vision. For example, positive symptoms of an ocular migraine include zigzagging lines that may seem to shimmer and be either colorful or black and silver and move across your field of vision. Flashbulbs, spots, stars, and shimmering spots are signs of a migraine aura. Negative symptoms include tunnel vision, blind spots, or loss of vision in one or both eyes.
Other signs of an ocular migraine, or migraine aura, can include changes or loss of color vision, blurred vision, a kaleidoscope-like fracturing of images, heat waves, distortion in objects (making them seem closer, further away, or bigger or smaller than they really are), or an appearance of seeing things as if one were looking through water. Numbness or tingling in the hands or feet, nausea, dizziness, sensitivity to light and sound, weakness, and head pain are additional possible effects of an ocular migraine.
The National Headache Foundation publishes that visual auras typically precede an actual headache or migraine by about 20 minutes to an hour, although the symptoms can persist with the headache itself. Visual impairments that accompany an ocular migraine can make it difficult to function normally and do things like drive safely or read.
The American Migraine Foundation reports that migraines are highly heritable and have a significant genetic link. You are between two to three times more likely to suffer from migraines if one of your parents does. Ocular migraines can also be linked to and potentially triggered by stress, anxiety, bright and harsh lights, loud noises, electronic screen time, not enough or too much sleep, intense smells, too much physical exertion, caffeine or caffeine withdrawal, food additives, medications, tobacco, skipping meals, and changes in the weather or environment.
Women tend to suffer from migraines more often than men do. The Migraine Research Foundation publishes that while only about 6 percent of men generally struggle with migraines, about 18 percent of women battle them. This can be partly due to changing levels of estrogen that can come with menstruation, pregnancy, contraceptive medications, and menopause. Medical conditions, such as anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, epilepsy, and sleep disorders, can also contribute to the onset of an ocular migraine.
What to Do in the Event of an Ocular Migraine
The American Heart Association publishes that migraine aura and visual disturbances occur about 20 percent of the time in the event of a migraine and can be a possible risk factor for ischemic stroke. Research findings show that if you suffer from migraine with aura, you are more than two times more likely to suffer from a blood clot or mass that clogs the blood vessel and leads to an ischemic stroke.
An ocular migraine can interfere with blood vessels in the brain, which in turn may raise the odds for clots and strokes. For this reason, if you suffer from ocular migraines, you should contact your health care provider to get it checked out and ensure that your risk factors are identified and addressed.
When suffering from an ocular migraine, it is important to take care of yourself. Try to manage the pain and symptoms as best you can. This may include:
- Moving to a quiet and dark room.
- Laying down and resting your eyes.
- Drinking a lot of water.
- Placing a cool compress on your head.
- Taking over-the-counter anti-inflammatory or anti-nausea medications.
Try to stay still in a safe place while the visual headache passes. Don't attempt to read, drive, or do anything else that requires extreme focus, concentration, or visual attention.
Ocular Migraine Treatments and Prevention
Migraines may not always be predictable, but they can be triggered by environmental, emotional, and physical aspects. They can therefore be treated and minimized by paying attention to these things. It can be helpful to keep a journal of your migraines to better understand when they occur in an effort to pinpoint potential triggers.
Birth control pills, medications, nutritional factors, caffeine, and tobacco are known to increase the rate of migraines. It can be beneficial to talk to your health care provider about making changes to your diet and medications as well as cutting out smoking and caffeine to possibly prevent an ocular migraine. Acupuncture, massage, and relaxation techniques can also help to potentially minimize an ocular migraine by alleviating stress and enhancing blood flow. Women may benefit from hormone therapy to control migraines.
Eating healthy and balanced meals, getting enough sleep, exercising regularly, and drinking plenty of water can help. Natural supplements may be useful in preventing an ocular migraine, and these can be discussed with your health care provider.
If you suffer from ocular migraines, it is important to pay attention to your body's cues and work to keep yourself as balanced as possible to minimize these events. Your doctor can help you come up with a strategy to improve your health as well as the severity and incidence of ocular migraines.
The Migraine-Stroke Connection. (May 2016). Journal of Stroke.
Migraine. (December 2018). U.S. National Library of Medicine.
Ocular Migraine: When to Seek Help. (May 2018). Mayo Clinic.
Video: Migraine Aura. (June 2016). Mayo Clinic.
Visual Disturbances: Related to Migraine or Not? American Migraine Foundation.
Visual Disturbances. (2018). National Headache Foundation.
The Genetics of Migraine. American Migraine Foundation.
Migraine is a Women's Health Issue. (2019). Migraine Research Foundation.
Migraine With Aura Linked to Clot-Caused Strokes. (February 2016). American Heart Foundation.