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Visual Disturbances: What Are They? (& What to Do)

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Visual disturbances occur when you experience a change in your vision that is not indicative of normal eye health. The term is most often used when discussing symptoms that affect people who suffer from migraines, but it can be applicable in other scenarios.

The most common instance of visual disturbances is generally unrelated to migraines. Floaters are blobs or spots in your vision, and most people will experience these at some point in their lives.

While common, large floaters or a sudden onset of them can be indicative of a more serious issue. Consult with a doctor immediately for such issues, as failing to do so could lead to blindness in the affected eye.

There are a myriad of visual disturbances associated with migraines, even though only about 25 to 30 percent of people who suffer from migraines experience them. They usually occur for about 10 to 30 minutes, and almost always for less than one hour. They generally precede a headache, but they sometimes occur alongside one.

Some people’s migraine symptoms change as they age, with headaches getting less severe. By 50, some people will experience visual disturbances without experiencing any headache at all.

If you experience a sudden visual disturbance with an increase in the severity, length, or symptoms, you should see a doctor immediately. If your symptoms seem radically different, you should be especially concerned.

Stroke symptoms can sometimes be confused with those of a migraine. If you experience migraines, talk to your doctor about ways to tell the difference between a migraine and a stroke.

Symptoms like numbness, confusion, and trouble walking are other signs of a stroke that go along with visual disturbances and headaches. If you or someone you know may be experiencing a stroke, call 911.

Visual disturbances on their own are usually not serious, but you should always see a doctor if you do not have an explanation for them, or they seem severe. Once you understand what your visual disturbances tend to look like and why, you only need to see a doctor again for them if there is a change that you cannot explain.

Visual Disturbances

mans forehead eyes pinched shut

A visual disturbance is any change to your vision that is not indicative of normal health and function. The term is most commonly associated with the disturbances seen with migraine headaches, but they can also be a sign of more serious issues like a stroke.

It can be helpful, even potentially lifesaving, to familiarize yourself with the nature of visual disturbances. If you frequently suffer from migraines, it is doubly important, as the symptoms of a stroke may masquerade as those of your normal migraine auras and other disturbances.


Floaters are blobs and spots in your vision. They are the results of particles or impurities in your eye’s vitreous casting shadows on the retina. Most people will experience floaters at some point in life, and generally, they are harmless.

eye floaters

Floaters become more common as people age, when the vitreous close to the retina becomes more fluid, and impurities can flow more freely. Even if they are not usually serious, they can sometimes be indicative of a serious eye disease or condition. If you notice sudden visual disturbance in the form of floaters, or you notice a large one, see an optometrist as soon as possible.

Diplopia/Double Vision

There are two types of diplopia. The first is monocular, which affects only one eye, and you only experience double vision with one eye open. It can be caused by damage to your eye lens, the retinal surface, or your cornea.

The other type is binocular, which affects both eyes and causes images to be misaligned. The causes include brain damage, nerve damage and muscle damage. Binocular diplopia is usually more serious than monocular diplopia.

Symptoms of diplopia include a wandering/cross-eyed look and pain accompanying eye movement or in areas around it. Headaches, nausea and droopy eyelids can also be symptoms of diplopia.

A doctor will make a diagnosis by taking through a series of physical tests and taking a record of your medical history. Treatment is largely dependent on the cause, and where there is no clear source, it can be serious. Treatment involves surgery and medication, and about 70 percent of the cases are managed this way.

Migraine-Caused Disturbances

According to the American Migraine Foundation, 25 to 30 percent of migraine sufferers experience visual aura symptoms. Importantly, these symptoms usually occur in both eyes.

This can be confusing, as the issue may only appear on one side of your visual field, such as the right side. To test, you can close one eye, check for the disturbance, and then do the same for the other eye. If you only see it in one eye, it may be indicative of a more serious problem.

The following are some examples of the visual disturbances a migraine can cause:

  • Photopsia: This is when you see flashes of light, like a bright bulb flashing in your vision.
  • Fortification spectra/teichopsia: These are bright, jagged lines that shimmer. They vaguely resemble battlements or fortifications, hence the name.
  • Metamorphopsia/Alice in Wonderland syndrome (AiWS): This is when images distort in shape, size, and/or color, producing an often bizarre visual effect some feel is reminiscent of Lewis Carroll’s work.
  • Scotoma/partial loss of vision: This effect is categorized by spots in the field of vision or a tunnel vision effect.
  • Amaurosis fugax: More commonly due to decreased blood flow due to a narrowing in the carotid artery, this effect can still occur with migraines. It appears like a loss of vision spreading from the top down, not unlike a shade being pulled.

The symptoms of migraine disturbances can be categorized into three groups.

  • Positive symptoms: These are visual disturbances where you see something that is not there.
  • Negative symptoms: These are the opposite of positive symptoms, where you have blind spots in your vision.
  • Distorted or altered visual symptoms: This category of symptoms includes many of the symptoms associated with Alice in Wonderland syndrome. Your vision is distorted or strange, such as colors or sizes being wrong, or it appears as if you are looking through water, heat waves, or other phenomena.

With migraines, visual disturbances of any kind typically occur for 10 to 30 minutes, and they rarely last over an hour. They usually precede a headache, but they may occur during one instead.

Your experiences with migraines may change as you get older. Some people may experience migraine-related visual symptoms but no actual headache around age 50 or older.

Treating Migraine-Caused Disturbances

If you experience migraines accompanied by any visual disturbances, you should seek immediate attention as they are often indicators of an underlying condition. There is no specific treatment for migraine-caused visual disturbances as they vary, and any treatment seeks to address both the migraine and underlying condition. Some treatment options include:

  • Beta-blockers to dilate blood vessels to and from the eye
  • Prescription medicine to manage convulsion symptoms
  • Localized paralytics to calm nerve spasms
  • Calcium channel blockers to prevent blood vessel constriction
  • Lifestyle changes to manage stress and alleviate inflammation, including staying hydrated and eliminating alcohol and caffeine

The underlying factor in all these conditions is the need for urgent medical attention. Should you experience any new or persistent symptoms, early diagnosis may be your only chance for effective treatment.

Other Types of Visual Disturbances

Visual disturbances vary in their manifestation, causes, and effects. In addition to floaters, other common ones include:


Blindness can present itself in two ways: partial blindness or total blindness. With partial blindness, light is visible, as are parts of your surroundings. With total blindness, you cannot see light at all. In the United States, vision below 20/200 is considered legal blindness. There are a variety of treatment options for legal blindness, including surgery and special eyeglasses or contact lenses.

Color blindness

Color blindness affects your ability to see specific colors in the same way you would see them with normal vision (the same way others see them). Poor color vision is often only partial, with individuals failing to differentiate specific shades (red, green, blue, yellow). With total color blindness, individuals only see shades of grey. There are no other colors.

Blurred vision

Blurred vision is a result of your eyes not aligning properly and thus you don’t receive or read visual images correctly. It could be a sign of another condition or changing eyesight. Most blurred vision is fixed by corrective and contact lenses, and if another condition is involved, it will require extra treatment.


As the name suggests, halo disturbances present as light circles around objects. They are not a condition on their own but could be a symptom of any of several medical conditions. You should get urgent treatment.


Some visual conditions could manifest as pain causing an itching sensation or eye discomfort whenever you shut or open your eyelid. It could also be present as continuous throbbing pain.

A Potential Sign of Something More Serious

Visual disturbances are sometimes representative of bigger dangers than they first appear.

As already discussed, floaters can sometimes represent serious eye disease or even retinal detachment. New visual disturbances, especially those that are only present in one eye, can also represent a serious problem.

Painless dark spots or floaters that are new, sometimes accompanied by flashes of light or loss of vision, may mean you have experienced a retinal or vitreous detachment. You should see an ophthalmologist right away, as vision loss may become permanent.

The transient loss of vision in one eye can be a warning sign of stroke or inflamed arteries. These episodes usually last 30 minutes, and they are not associated with headache. They are especially worrisome if you are over 45 years old. If you experience these symptoms, see an see an ophthalmologist, neuro-ophthalmologist, or neurologist immediately.

Tunnel Vision
Tunnel vision, loss of one side of the visual field, or episodes of complete blindness can be signs of a stroke. They may or may not be accompanied by dizziness, imbalance, weakness, numbness, double vision, or headache. See a doctor promptly if these occur.

When to Call 911

Frequent migraines can hide symptoms of a stroke. This can have deadly consequences, as immediate help is needed in the case of a stroke.

If you or someone you know shows any of the following symptoms, call 911 immediately:

  • Abrupt numbness or weakness of the arm, leg, or face, usually but not always on one side of the body
  • Sudden confusion, including difficulty with speaking or understanding
  • Unexpected trouble walking, faintness, loss of balance, or dexterity

Unfortunately, two other indicators of a stroke can be sudden trouble seeing in one or both eyes and a severe headache. If you suffer from migraines (and therefore frequently experience these two symptoms), talk to your doctor about ways to note the difference.

If you are unsure whether you are having a stroke, call 911. It’s always best to err on the side of safety.

Should I Be Concerned About Visual Disturbances?

Visual disturbances can be frightening. You should always seek an explanation from a trained professional about why they occurring.

Oftentimes, they are just an unfortunate but not generally dangerous symptom of another condition. At the same time, they can sometimes represent a serious issue.

Be mindful of changes to your vision. Even if you commonly experience visual disturbances, sudden changes to their severity, duration, or type can be indicative of a worsening problem or a different issue.

Take visual disturbances seriously. They occur for a reason. See a doctor and get a professional diagnosis of why they are happening. Generally speaking, you will not need to worry, but it is best to have the issue professionally assessed.

Once you have a diagnosis, you do not need to see a doctor every time your symptoms occur. You should see one again if you experience any changes or significant problems.


  1. Anatomy of the Eye. University of Michigan.
  2. Visual Disturbances: Related to Migraine or Not? (February 5, 2016). American Migraine Foundation.
  3. Diagnosis and Treatment of Visual Disturbances in Multiple Sclerosis. (2010). International Journal of MS Care.
  4. Visual Disturbances. National Headache Foundation.
  5. Visual Aura and Scotomas: What Do They Indicate? (September 15, 2015). Review of Optometry.
  6. Floaters, Spots, and Flashes. The NZ Association of Optometrists.
  7. Migraine with aura. (July 2021). Mayo Clinic.
  8. Diplopia (Double Vision). (March 2020). WebMD.
  9. Types of visual impairment. (June 2015). New Medical Life Sciences.

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