One morning I noticed I couldn't see all the letters on my shampoo bottle. As I walked through the house, my peripheral vision started getting dark, and I was seeing strange jagged lines in front of me. Not long after the visual effects, I experienced a headache. Having studied extensively about migraines, I knew this was an ocular migraine. For many, this can be a traumatic experience.
What is an ocular migraine?
Ocular 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. Occasionally after one experiences an ocular migraine, they may have a headache as well.
People with ocular migraines can have a variety of visual symptoms. You might see a small, enlarging blind spot (scotoma) in your central vision with bright, flashing or flickering lights (scintillations), or wavy or zig-zag lines surrounding the blind spot. The blind spot usually enlarges and may move across your field of vision. In some cases migraines can affect hearing, speech or smell; numbness or tingling in the face, arms or legs; or generalized weakness.
This entire migraine phenomenon may end in only a few minutes, but usually lasts up to 30 minutes.
What causes ocular migraines?
Ocular migraines are thought to be caused by the same triggers as regular migraines. Studies have shown a close link to family history. Migraines most commonly affect adults in their 30s and 40s, but they frequently start at puberty and also can affect children. Women are up to three times more likely than men to have migraines. Potential migraine triggers include certain foods, cigarette smoke, perfumes and other strong odors, glaring or flickering lights, lack of sleep and emotional stress.
Ocular migraine treatments?
Because they generally are harmless and typically resolve on their own within a half hour, ocular migraines usually require no treatment.
If you are driving or performing other tasks that require good vision when an ocular migraine occurs, stop what you are doing and relax until your vision returns to normal.
If you experience visual disturbances that are part of a migraine, or you want to prevent future ocular migraines or migraine headache attacks, it's a good idea to see your general physician for an exam and advice.
Also, you should consider having a comprehensive eye exam with your eye care provider whenever you experience unusual vision symptoms to rule out sight-threatening conditions such as a detached retina, which requires immediate attention.
Headache disorders. World Health Organization Media Centre. Fact sheet 277. March 2004. (Accessed June 2012).
Haddrill, M., Heiting, G. Ocular migraines explained. Aug 2011.
Dr. Garineh Nersisyan is an optometrist at Wink Optometry.