Ocular migraines also known as ophthalmic, eye or retinal migraines are painless, temporary visual disturbances that can affect one or both eyes. Though they can be frightening, ocular migraines typically are harmless and self-resolve without medication within 20 to 30 minutes. If an ocular migraine is followed by a throbbing, usually one-sided headache, this is called a “migraine with aura” (also known as a classic migraine). The visual disturbance is then referred to as an aura rather than an ocular migraine. A migraine headache without a visual disturbance preceding it is called a “migraine without aura” (also known as a common migraine).
People with ocular migraines can have a host of visual symptoms. You can have a small blind spot that enlarges in your central vision. You may also have a bright flashing or flickering of lights that surrounds the blind spot. The blind spot can also move in your field of vision. Migraine auras usually are visual in nature, but they can include disturbances of hearing, speech or smell; progressive numbness or tingling in the face or arms or legs; or generalized weakness.
Migraines most commonly affect adults in their 30s and 40s, and they commonly start at puberty. Women are three times more likely than men to experience both classic and ocular migraines. Seventy percent of migraine sufferers have a family history of the disease. The trigger that activates the migraine occurs deep in the brain, and the brain then releases inflammatory substances around the nerves and blood vessels of the head. It is still, however, unknown why this occurs.
Common triggers can include certain foods such as aged cheeses, red wine, caffeinated drinks, chocolate and smoked meats. Other triggers include perfume, lack of sleep, stress, glaring or flickering lights, and cigarette smoke. Keep a journal of your diet and activities prior to your episodes to see if you can identity, and hopefully avoid, your triggers. If this appears to be stress related, find a way to reduce your stress by getting plenty of sleep, exercising and performing yoga or massage.
Since ocular migraines are harmless and typically resolve on their own within a half hour, they usually require no treatment. If this occurs while you are driving or performing certain tasks, stop what you are doing and relax until your vision returns to normal. If you experience classic migraines or any headaches that last more than 24 hours and occur more than twice a month, you may need to discuss treatment options with your healthcare provider.
If you are experiencing flickering, flashes or shimmering “heat waves” in your vision, it is important to have your eyes checked. While ocular migraines are not serious, it is necessary to rule out any sight-threatening conditions such as a detached retina, which requires immediate attention. Please feel free to contact our office if you experience changes in your vision that concern you. We will be happy to provide you with a thorough eye examination.