A Ocular Migraine Explained
An ocular migraine(1) is a type of a headache that causes temporary vision distortion or loss in one eye, may or may not be accompanied by pain. They are also called eye migraine, retinal migraine or ophthalmic migraines. They might sound frightening, but ocular migraines 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 ocular migraines episodes last for about five minutes after which normal vision is restored. In some cases, it might cause damage to the blood vessels around the retina area, but permanent vision loss is rare. Ocular migraines occur commonly in:
- People below 40 years old
- People who have a family or personal history of migraines or other types headaches
- People with diseases such as hardening of the arteries, lupus, epilepsy, sickle cell disease, or depression.
The use of the term “ocular migraines” can sometimes be confusing. Migraine aura, which also cause visual distortions, are sometimes referred to as “ocular migraines”, more so if they don’t cause headaches. The main difference between the two migraines is that ocular migraines cause symptoms only to the eye while the Aura migraines affect both. Since the terms can be so confusing, you need to be careful. If you are diagnosed with an ocular migraine, don’t use it interchangeably with Aura migraines as their treatment is slightly different.
One more thing about a migraine with aura is that the visual distortion is often accompanied by a throbbing, usually one-sided headache. Migraine auras are visual in nature, but they 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 headache and ocular migraine to occur simultaneously, which cause visual disturbances and head pain.
Understanding ocular migraines
Although the term migraine(2) often brings in a sense of severe headache, most ocular migraine 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 ocular migraines. So since this is how most people understand it, we will also be referring to it in this Ocular Migraines Explained guide as “ocular migraine.”
Migraines such as this are often produced by our body’s neurological responses to some triggers such as flashing lights, 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 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 ocular migraine episode hits a patient, they often enter their headache stages and will naturally avoid bright lights and seek comfort.
Ocular migraine symptoms
People suffering from ocular migraines can experience a variety of visual symptoms. The most common is you might see a small, enlarging blind spot in your field of vision with episodes of bright flickering lights or zig-zag lines inside the blind spot. The blind spot typically expands and may move from one side of the vision field to the other. Some ocular migraine symptoms may subside after a few minutes, but most of them will last for about 20 to 30 minutes.
Ocular migraines are generally considered harmless. They are usually painless and don’t cause permanent loss of vision or brain damage. About 60% of ocular migraines experience symptoms of migraine prodome which might include cravings for certain foods, mood swings and a general feeling of being tired.
For most migraine patients, symptoms 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 ocular migraine after exercise or any other strenuous activity, but this often lasts for just a few minutes.
Even though ocular migraines 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 the detached retina. In some cases, patients may experience moderate or extreme Ocular Migraine 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.
Ocular migraines are thought to be caused by similar causes that trigger migraine headaches. According to the World Health Organization(3), most migraines have a genetic base, and up to 70% of people suffering from migraines often have a family history of the condition. 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 ocular migraines, changes in the flow of blood to the brain occur. Migraines commonly affect adults in the early 30s and 40s, but an ocular migraine in child and 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 ocular migraines include certain drinks such as red wine, caffeinated drinks, chocolate and smoked meats. Food additives such as artificial sweeteners and monosodium glutamate are also known to trigger ocular migraines 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 ocular migraines and 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.
During ocular migraine 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 blindness as well.
A specialized doctor might want to do further diagnosis to make sure that the symptoms aren’t caused by other serious eye diseases or 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.
Other conditions that cause similar problems that your doctor might rule out or explore during the 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.
- Inflammation of blood vessels
- Spasms in the arteries that channel blood to the retina.
What Should I Do if I Have an Ocular Migraine?
Visiting an eye doctor might be a good idea, but may not produce all the answers you are looking for in terms of how to prevent or treat ocular migraines. As mentioned, this is due to the fact that processes that trigger ocular migraines 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.
Painless ocular migraines often appear suddenly, which creates the sensation of squinting through a shiny cracked window. The vision distortions that accompany these episodes spread across 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 from an ocular migraine and your vision in cleared. Stay calm and still until a migraine has resolved. If you’ve issues with lingering or unusual vision symptoms, visit an eye doctor or any other physician for a checkup.
Treatment and prevention
If you’ve experienced any of the above-named symptoms, chances are you’re thinking of how to get rid of ocular migraines. As earlier mentioned, ocular migraines 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 the condition is accompanied with pain and a headache, inquire from your doctor if it’s Ok 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. You might be required to take these medications for a prolonged period of time to prevent future recurrence. Common medications will include;
- Antidepressants to prevent a migraine
- Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory to relieve inflammation and pain
- Antinausea 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 of ocular migraine attacks, consider seeing a general physician for advice and examination. You should also consider having a compressive 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 ocular migraines 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 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 ocular migraines are stress related, you can reduce the severity and occurrence by doing the following;
- Avoid common ocular migraine triggers
- Eat healthy meals regularly.
- Get plenty of sleep
- Try stress-relieving activities such as massage and yoga.
Natural ocular migraine treatments
At the beginning of this ocular migraine explained guide, we mentioned that an ocular migraine is not actually a life-threatening condition, and can either resolve on its own or can be managed naturally. It’s important to maintain a journal of the frequency and intensity of a migraine as well as the suspected triggers.
Aromatherapy, homeopathy, yoga, diet and lifestyle changes can help prevent ocular migraines. Here are some of the natural home headache cures and remedies that can help in ocular migraine relief;
- Chamomile: it has been known to reduce the frequency and intensity of migraines. There are plenty of ocular migraine YouTube videos that can show you how to prepare chamomile tea among other 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 infused on 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 enhance blood flow and constricted muscles
- Eliminate or reduce red wine, alcohol use, cheese, caffeine, and chocolate.
I hope this Ocular Migraines Explained guide has been useful in explaining what an ocular migraine is and some of the symptoms to look out for. We’ve also tried to bring out the deeper understanding of the term ocular migraine why it’s confused by some other similar migraine conditions. For instance, some of the symptoms such as one-sided headaches and visual distortions can also be experienced in other conditions such as detached retina and migraine of aura.
If you experience a number of the named symptoms, don’t panic, ocular migraine 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 seek medical advice from a physician.