An ocular migraine is a type of a headache that causes temporary vision distortion or loss of sight in one eye, and may or may not be accompanied by pain.
They are also called eye migraines, retinal migraines or ophthalmic migraines. They might sound frightening, but are typically harmless. They are often caused by sudden constriction or tightening of blood vessels, which results in reduced blood flow to the eye.
Most of the episodes last for about five minutes after which normal vision is restored. In some cases, it might cause damage to the blood vessel area around the retina area, but permanent vision loss is rare.
Ocular Migraine Facts
This type of migraine can occur commonly in:
- People below 40 years old
- People with a family or personal history of migraines or other types of migraine
- People with diseases such as hardening of the arteries, lupus, epilepsy, sickle cell disease, or depression.
The use of the term can sometimes be confusing. A migraine aura, which also causes visual distortions, are sometimes referred to as an ocular migraine or a retinal migraine, more so if they don’t cause headaches.
The main difference between the two migraines is that an ocular one causes symptoms only to the eye, while a migraine aura affects both. Since these migraine types can be confusing, you need to be careful. If you are diagnosed with one, don’t use it interchangeably as their treatment is slightly different.
More About A Migraine Aura
One more thing about a migraine with aura is that the visual distortion is often accompanied by a throbbing, usually one-sided headache. An aura is visual in nature, but can sometimes with accompanied by disturbances of speech, hearing or smell.
In severe cases, you may experience progressive tingling or numbness in the face, legs or arms, and generalized weakness. Although rare, it’s possible for a migraine and the ocular type to occur simultaneously, which causes visual disturbances and head pain.
Understanding The Ocular Migraine Causes
Although the term migraine headaches often brings in a sense of a severe headache, most episodes are often painless.
The visual disturbances and occasional headaches are related to blood flow in the brain. These visual disturbances are technically referred to as ophthalmic migraines, although most people commonly and incorrectly refer to them as an ocular migraine.
Migraines such as this are often produced by our body’s neurological responses to some triggers such as flashes of light, hormonal changes, and chemicals in medication or food. One of the results of these triggers may include an intense headache that can last for several hours or even days if untreated.
An ocular migraine might be experienced by 1 in every 200 migraine patients. The severity of visual disturbance or impairment ranges from mild sensitivity to light to, in rare cases, permanent visual loss. Most of them will, however, cause temporary visual distortion to one or both eyes and will only last for minutes. Once an episode hits a patient, they often enter their headache stages and will naturally avoid bright lights and seek comfort.
People suffering from one can experience a variety of visual symptoms. The most common is you might see a small but enlarging blind spot in your field of vision with episodes of bright flickering or flashing lights or zig-zag lines inside the blind spot.
The blind spots or loss of vision in one eye typically expands and may move from one side of the vision field to the other. Some symptoms may subside after a few minutes, but most of them will last for about 20 to 30 minutes.
These are generally considered harmless. They are usually painless and don’t cause permanent vision loss or brain damage. About 60% of sufferers experience symptoms of migraine prodome which might include cravings for certain foods, mood swings and a general feeling of being tired.
For most patients, issues involving eyesight are the most disturbing and most common. Vision distortions can greatly impair your ability to perform normal tasks such as completing school work or driving. Some people do experience one of these migraines after exercise or any other strenuous activity, but this often lasts for just a few minutes.
Even though they aren’t life-threatening, you should always consult your doctor when you experience any unusual visual distortion symptoms as they might be a sign of another serious condition, such as a detached retina. In some cases, patients may experience moderate or extreme pain, and throbbing and pulsating on side of the head. In rare cases, you might also experience vomiting, nausea and being sensitive to light and sound.
An ocular migraine is thought to be caused by similar causes that trigger migraine headaches. Studies indicate that migraines are triggered when some mechanisms in the brain are activated, which releases inflammatory secretions around the blood vessels and nerves of the head and brain. It’s not however very clear what brings about these reactions.
New studies have revealed that during visual auras and an ocular migraine, changes in the flow of blood to the brain occur. Migraines commonly affect adults in the early 30’s and 40’s, but a child having one during puberty is also a common occurrence. It’s also observed that women are more likely to develop migraines than men.
Common triggers that can cause susceptible people to have one include certain drinks such as wine, caffeinated drinks, chocolate and smoked meats. Keeping a migraine diet to watch certain food additives such as artificial sweeteners and monosodium glutamate are also known to be a trigger in some people. Other notable triggers include perfumes, cigarette smoke, flickering or glaring lights.
Can stress cause ocular migraines? Yes, it does, emotional stress and lack of sleep have been closely associated with one or other forms of migraines. Recent studies have also revealed that bending over, dehydration, certain birth control pills, excessive heat, high altitude, low blood sugar and high blood pressure can also contribute.
Ocular Migraine Diagnosis
During diagnosis, the physician might examine your family and personal medical history, and ask about symptoms that you might be experiencing. The doctor will highlight all the symptoms and rule out other possible triggers of these symptoms. It’s vital to diagnose and rule out other possible causes of temporary vision loss in one eye and blind spots as well.
A specialized doctor might want to do further diagnosis to make sure that the ocular migraine symptoms aren’t caused by other serious eye diseases or even stroke. Some individuals who experience visual distortions might have hemianopia, a condition characterized by loss of sight on the same side of the eyes.
Hemianopia often occurs in traumatic and stroke brain injuries. Even worse a Familial Hemiplegic Migraine has similar symptoms of double vision and sensory loss such as paralysis in any body part or numbness of the face. These will be considered when making a diagnosis.
Other conditions that cause similar problems that your doctor might rule out or explore during the ocular migraine diagnosis include;
- Drug abuse
- Conditions that prevent your blood from clotting normally such as polycythemia and sickle cell anemia.
- Amaurosis; a temporary blindness caused by insufficient flow of blood to the eye. This can occur as a result blockage of arteries that channel blood to the eyes.
- Blood vessel conditions related to autoimmune diseases
- Spasms in the arteries that channel blood to the retina
What Should I Do if I Have One?
Visiting an eye doctor might be a good idea, but it may not produce all the answers you are looking for in terms of how to prevent or treat an ocular migraine. As mentioned, this is due to the fact that processes that the migraine triggers are not very well understood yet. The visual symptoms you might be experiencing are directly related to the eyes; the symptoms come as a result of the “activity” of a migraine in the visual cortex area of the brain.
Migraine attacks often appear suddenly, which can create the sensation of squinting through a shiny cracked window. The vision distortions that accompany these episodes spread across your vision field and usually subside with about 30 minutes. Your visual acuity during these migraine episodes will be significantly impaired.
If sharp visual acuity is critical for your safety, it’s advisable to immediately stop what you’re doing. If you’re driving, for instance, pull over until you recover and your vision returns to normal. Stay calm and still until a migraine has resolved.
If you have issues with lingering or unusual vision symptoms that effect both eyes, visit an eye doctor or any other physician for a checkup.
Treatment and Prevention
If you’ve experienced any of the above-named issues, chances are you’re thinking of how to get rid of the symptoms. As earlier mentioned, they usually resolve on their own within 20 to 30 minutes, so most cases don’t need treatment. Any time you experience the mentioned symptoms, it’s best to stop what you are doing and rest until the vision goes back to normal.
If an ocular migraine is accompanied with pain and a headache, inquire from your doctor if it’s alright to take a pain reliever. But if the symptoms are regular or at an increasing frequency, you may need medications for migraines to help tone down the frequency of the attacks, and for this you need to consult your doctor.
Medications Can Help
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You might be required to take medications for a prolonged period of time to prevent future recurrence of an ocular migraine. Common medications for this will include:
- Antidepressants for prevention
- Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory to relieve inflammation and pain
- Anti-nausea drugs to prevent vomiting and nausea.
- Beta blockers to help relax vessels in the brain
- Calcium channel blockers for preventing vessels from constricting
If you experience vision distortions accompanied by a migraine with aura, or if you’re looking to prevent future occurrence or attacks of an ocular migraine, consider seeing a general physician for advice and examination. You should also consider having a comprehensive eye examination with an ophthalmologist or optometrist if you experience unusual visual distortions to rule out other threatening conditions such as a detached retina.
Individuals who experience an ocular migraine that last for over 24 hours or those who experience more than 3 migraines in a month should consider preventative medication. You might also want to keep a headache journal of your activities and diets just prior to the migraine episodes to see if you can point out any possible triggers for future reference.
If you suspect that these are stress related, you can reduce the severity and occurrence by doing the following;
- Avoid common triggers
- Eat healthy meals regularly.
- Get plenty of sleep
- Try stress-relieving activities such as massage and yoga
Natural Treatments for Ocular Migraines
At the beginning of this guide, we mentioned that an ocular migraine might not be a life-threatening condition, and can either resolve on its own or can be managed naturally. It’s important to maintain a headache journal of the frequency and intensity of the migraine symptoms as well as the suspected triggers.
Aromatherapy, homeopathy, yoga, diet and lifestyle changes can help prevent an ocular migraine. Here are some of the natural home headache cures and remedies that can provide relief;
- Chamomile: it has been known to reduce the frequency and intensity of migraines. There are plenty of YouTube videos that can show you helpful remedies.
- Lemon rind: pound a few dry lemon rinds into a paste then apply them over your forehead.
- Basil: inhale vapors or basil tea from 3 drops of basil essential oil infused in boiling water.
- Lavender: inhale lavender essential oil and apply some of it on your neck and temples
- Massage: have someone massage your back of your head, neck, and temples with peppermint and lavender essential oil to loosen muscles and enhance blood flow and constricted muscles
- Eliminate or reduce red wine, alcohol use, cheese, caffeine, and chocolate.
We hope this ocular migraine guide has been useful in explaining what one is and some of the symptoms to look out for. We’ve also tried to bring out the deeper understanding of the term and why it’s confused by some other similar migraine conditions.
If you experience a number of the above named symptoms, don’t panic, it is not a sight-threatening condition. It often subsides on its own after about 20 to 30 minutes. However, if symptoms persist for over 24 hours, be sure to find a doctor to seek medical advice.