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 is not 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.

Although visual snow impacts vision, the eyes and optic apparatus are usually completely functional. It is a neurological disorder that can be debilitating and recurring.

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.

It has commonly been associated with migraines and the visual aura that can occur during migraines; however, it is a separate disorder. If visual snow is occurring as a side effect of a migraine, it will typically dissipate when the migraine is controlled.

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.

Visual snow is a rare disorder. Thanks to new research, treatments are being introduced that can improve quality of life related to it.

Causes of Visual Snow

Currently, the causes of visual snow are not known. It is believed that the issue could be connected to a neurological disorder related to visual processing in the cortex of the brain.

People who have visual snow syndrome (VSS) have an abnormality in a structure in the occipital lobe of the brain, known as the lingual gyrus.

Some research suggests that people with VSS may be hyperresponsive to visual stimuli. As a result, nerve cells send signals to the brain, which are mistakenly deciphered as actual images.

Research into the causes of visual snow syndrome are ongoing, so it’s likely that we’ll learn more about its causes in the coming years.

Symptoms of Visual Snow

Visual snow syndrome...

Visual snow syndrome is often misdiagnosed as either a migraine with auras or hallucinogen persisting perception disorder (HPPD), but the symptoms are not quite the same as either issue.

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 

eye floaters

entoptic phenomenon, myodesopsia, or self-light of the eye along with the snow. Some of these symptoms can be present even if you do not 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

young woman staring at the sun

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.

Tinnitus & Visual Snowitchy eyes

Tinnitus, or ringing in the ears, commonly co-occurs with visual snow syndrome. In a 2014 study, 63 percent of participants with VSS also experienced ongoing tinnitus in both ears. There are many theories for the connection between VSS and tinnitus. Some researchers hypothesize that the hypersensitivity to visual stimuli seen in VSS is present audibly with tinnitus. People who have this level of hyperresponsiveness to visual stimuli may have the same hyperresponsiveness to audible stimuli, resulting in tinnitus. A 2016 study suggested that visual snow syndrome could be linked to tinnitus and other sensory processing issues through a shared mechanism.

Diagnosis

If you only have had a couple episodes of visual snow, this won’t be enough to warrant a diagnosis of VSS. A diagnosis of the syndrome requires that symptoms be constant for at least three months. A doctor will first attempt to rule out other possible causes of the symptoms you’re experiencing. If no other issues are found, a diagnosis of VSS may be appropriate.

Prevention

Because the cause of visual snow syndrome is not known, there is no way to prevent the condition. However, there are certain steps you can take that may help to reduce the frequency and intensity of VSS episodes. Try the following:

  • Wear tinted glasses. Some people find that shading their eyes from light can reduce the intensity of visual snow.
  • Ask your doctor about medication. While medication may help to improve some symptoms, one study showed that no one experienced full relief from their symptoms with medication.
  • Try lifestyle changes. Certain lifestyle changes, such as prioritizing sleep, a balanced diet, and regular exercise, may help to reduce the frequency of VSS episodes by simply promoting overall health.

References

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.

Visual Snow—Persistent Positive Visual Phenomenon Distinct from Migraine Aura. (2015). Current Pain and Headache Reports.

What Visual Snow May Tell Us About Tinnitus. (May 2017). The Hearing Journal.

Visual Snow Syndrome and Its Relationship to Tinnitus. (June 2017). The International Tinnitus Journal.

Visual Snow Syndrome: A Review on Diagnosis, Pathophysiology, and Treatment. (2019). Current Opinion in Neurology.

‘Visual Snow’ – A Disorder Distinct From Persistent Migraine Aura. (March 2014). Brain.

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