A Neurological Disorder
Visual snow syndrome, sometimes called VSS, is a neurological disorder that occurs when visual information is not processed properly. Typically, all of the optic apparatuses work fine, but the signals being sent to the brain are disrupted in some way.
It isn't entirely clear what causes visual snow disorder, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). It is considered a nervous system disease.
Visual snow syndrome is a rare disease that involves both eyes and the entire field of vision. Visual snow is like seeing static, such as looking at a bad picture on an old television set.
It can be an extremely debilitating disease that can vastly impact quality of life and make daily life tasks difficult.
Visual snow is a disorder that impacts the entire visual field. It can make it seem as though you are looking into a static-filled television set.
Visual snow can cause sensitivity to light, floating "dots" in the field of vision, "static," and images to appear after they are no longer visible. (Learn More)
It has commonly been associated with migraines and the visual aura that can occur during migraines; however, it is a separate disorder. (Learn More) If visual snow is occurring as a side effect of a migraine, it will typically dissipate when the migraine is controlled. (Learn More).
Visual snow syndrome is not likely to go away on its own. There are a few medications that may be helpful in managing the disorder. (Learn More)
Visual snow is a rare disorder. Thanks to new research, treatments are being introduced that can improve quality of life related to it. (Learn More)
Symptoms of Visual Snow
For a diagnosis of VSS, symptoms will typically need to be persistent and recurring for a period of at least three months. Visual symptoms include:
- Dots, fuzz, or “snow” in the field of vision. Dots are usually black and white but can be colored too.
- Bright dots moving fast when looking into blue light (blue field entoptic phenomenon).
- Sensitivity to light (photophobia).
- Flashing lights (photopsia).
- Small "floaters" in the vision field (myodesopsia).
- Visual effects within the eye (entoptic phenomena).
- Images continue to appear after they are no longer visible (palinopsia).
- Trouble seeing at night or in low light (nyctalopia).
Around three-quarters of people struggling with visual snow report suffering from three or more of these symptoms: spontaneous photopsia, blue field
entoptic phenomenon, myodesopsia, or self-light of the eye along with the snow. Some of these symptoms can be present even if you don't suffer from visual snow syndrome, but in the case of the disease, the symptoms will keep coming back (be recurring), persistent, and debilitating.
As a result of visual snow and vision disruptions, it can be difficult to function normally in everyday life. Depression, panic attacks, and anxiety can be common side effects of visual snow syndrome.
Visual Snow and Migraines
Around half of those who suffer from visual snow syndrome also battle migraines. Visual snow is often misdiagnosed as a migraine with an aura. The aura can be a set of visual symptoms similar to that experienced with visual snow.
Migraines do not always accompany visual snow, however. The two are very distinct and different disorders.
Again, visual snow is a neurological disorder that involves disruptions in the way that images are processed after seeing them (visual postprocessing) in the visual association cortex. The visual pathways between the optic nerve and the brain are likely impacted. There may very well be some overlap between migraines with persistent aura and visual snow syndrome, but they are not exactly the same thing.
If you suffer from visual snow symptoms as the result of a migraine, the visual disturbances will likely dissipate as the migraine improves. If the symptoms occur due to visual snow syndrome, they will not go away completely and may keep coming back. They may be pervasive and persistent.
Visual Snow and Illicit Drug Use
Visual disturbances and symptoms of visual snow syndrome can be similar to those experienced by someone who has used a hallucinogenic drug in the past. HPPD is a side effect of past hallucinogenic drug use that can mimic symptoms of visual snow.
Somewhere between 5 and 50 percent of all people who have used hallucinogenic drugs will suffer from some kind of flashback, or recurrence of visual distortions and experiences long after the drug has worn off. In the case of HPPD, these visual disturbances can be recurring and persistent.
In the past, visual snow disorder has often been misdiagnosed as HPPD. Visual snow syndrome is a disease separate from HPPD, however. It can occur without any history of previous drug use.
Treatments for Visual Snow Syndrome
Visual snow syndrome is not a disease that will just go away on its own. The visual disturbances are unlikely to just get better without treatment, which typically involves medications.
The most regularly used medications for visual snow syndrome are antiepileptic and antidepressant medications. However, these medications may only manage the symptoms a little more than half the time.
There is no specific treatment for visual snow syndrome currently, but some medications are showing promise. Mood-stabilizing medications are often used to treat bipolar disorder and to control seizures. Lamotrigine has shown some ability in helping to manage and improve symptoms of visual snow.
The antidepressant and nerve pain medication amitriptyline has also been documented to improve some visual snow symptoms. It is theorized that visual snow may be the result of a hormone imbalance that can be caused by a fatigued pituitary gland and possible peripheral nerve pain. Amitriptyline is a tricyclic antidepressant that increases levels of hormones and boosts levels of some of the chemical messengers in the brain.
Migraines, anxiety, panic attacks, pain, and depression can often accompany visual snow syndrome. Therefore, medications to prevent migraines, pain medications, and mood stabilizers can often be helpful when treating the disorder.
Though visual snow syndrome is a relatively rare disease, new treatments are being explored to improve quality of life for those impacted by the disorder.
Visual Snow Syndrome. (March 2018). National Institutes of Health (NIH).
Visual Snow Syndrome. (2018). National Organization for Rare Disorders (NORD).
Melting the Myths of Visual Snow. (May 2012). Psychology Today.
Visual Snow Is a Real Neurological Phenomenon Distinct From Migraine. (January 2019). Neurology Today.
Hallucinogen-Persisting Perception Disorder. (October 2012). Therapeutic Advances in Psychopharmacology.
P0070 Treatment Effect in Visual Snow. (May 2017). British Medical Journals (BMJ).
Visual Snow Syndrome Successfully Treated With Lamotrigine: Case Report (P4.129). (April 2018). Neurology.
Visual Snow Syndrome: A Case Report and New Treatment Option. (2018). Clinical Medical Reviews and Case Reports.