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An ocular migraine (or retinal migraine) is an eye problem characterized by short episodes of vision loss or visual disturbances.
For example, you may see flashing lights in one eye accompanied by a headache.
Your doctor may also refer to this type of migraine as ophthalmic or monocular migraines.
These episodes may be scary. But in most cases, they are harmless and short-lived. However, ocular migraines can be a sign of a more serious condition.
Some people experience retinal migraines every few months, but the frequency varies from person to person.
Retinal migraine is a unique condition that should not be confused with headache-type migraine or migraine with aura, which often affect both eyes.1
Currently, there is limited research on what causes ocular and visual migraines.
Although studies have shown a change in blood flow into the eye during ocular migraines, the exact cause of this change remains unclear.
However, scientists sometimes associate the condition with genetics, meaning it may run in the family.
According to research, up to 70% of migraine patients have a personal or family history of migraine.2
Migraine triggers play a vital role in the onset and frequency of migraines.
Common migraine triggers include:3
The most common ocular migraine symptom is a small blind spot (scotoma) that impairs your central vision in one eye.
This blind spot expands, making it difficult to drive safely or read using the affected eye.
In addition to the flickering blind spot, other migraine symptoms include:
If you have blind spots or other visual symptoms and aren’t sure whether it's an ocular migraine or a visual migraine, cover one eye at a time and observe your sense of sight. If the visual disturbance affects one eye only, it is most likely an ocular migraine.
Although the symptoms of ocular migraines can be frightening, the condition is harmless and short-lived in most cases. However, ocular migraines can indicate serious health problems, such as increased risk for stroke or severe carotid artery disease.
It’s essential to see an eye doctor when you lose your eyesight suddenly for the first time or if your eyesight deteriorates to check for any serious conditions.
If you have ocular migraines, you can see an ophthalmologist or an optometrist.
Optometrists are eye care specialists who offer primary vision care services, including:
On the other hand, ophthalmologists are medical practitioners who specialize in eye and vision care. They differ from optometrists in their degrees of schooling as well as what they can diagnose and cure.
An ophthalmologist is a healthcare professional who has finished college and has at least eight years of further medical studies. He or she is licensed to practice medicine and surgery. Ophthalmologists hold a Doctor of Medicine degree.
Optometrists are healthcare professionals who complete four additional years of school after finishing undergraduate studies. They hold a Doctor of Optometry degree.
When you visit your doctor, they will ask about your symptoms, examine your eyes, and order additional tests to rule out other serious conditions such as:
If you have been diagnosed with retinal migraines, consult your doctor about the best treatment options. There is no one recommended treatment regimen since it varies from person to person.
If you don’t experience ocular migraines very frequently, your doctor may advise you to use over-the-counter NSAIDs like aspirin and ibuprofen when the episodes occur.4
Your doctor may also recommend the following:
Doctors don’t usually use traditional migraine treatments such as triptans and ergotamines for people with ocular (retinal) migraines.5
Triptans, for example, aren’t safe if you’re at risk for a stroke, which may be the case for people experiencing temporary blindness in one eye.
A recent technique for treating or preventing ocular migraine is to use a self-administered device that delivers electrical stimulation to the forehead or back of the head.
These devices include:
The following remedies can help ease your ocular migraine attack without going to the doctor:
If your visual migraine occurs frequently, here are some tips to help you prevent or manage the condition.
Below are some frequently asked questions about ocular migraines:
Dehydration is one of the triggers of ocular migraines. Keeping your body hydrated will help prevent or reduce the frequency of occurrence of migraines.
Just like dehydration, anxiety is also a trigger of ocular migraines. The symptoms of ocular migraines can also cause anxiety, which worsens ocular migraines.
Simple reassurance from your doctor will lower anxiety levels and decrease or eliminate ocular migraines.
Researchers are working to fully understand the relationship between high blood pressure and ocular migraines.
Current research points to the fact that migraine attacks are prevalent in people with high blood pressure.
Anyone suffering from high blood pressure is advised to get it under control, especially those with a known history of ocular migraines.
A migraine that is accompanied by vision issues can be associated with certain tumors, such as the occipital lobe tumor.
Although this is a rare condition, migraines are common among patients with brain tumors.
An ocular migraine is not necessarily a sign of a stroke, but can indicate increased risk.
However, research indicates that people with a history of ocular migraines are at a higher risk of stroke.
Sometimes, migraines and strokes can occur together, but this is rare.
Cholesterol plaques in the eye that can cause temporary vision loss or blind spots. They are a strong indicator of impending stroke.
The exact cause of ocular migraines is currently unknown. However, scientists associate the condition with genetics.
Other factors include stress, alcohol, fatigue, dehydration, hormonal changes, and smoking, among others.
Most people do not need treatment since the episodes of blindness usually last less than 60 minutes.
The quickest way to get rid of an ocular migraine is to stop what you’re doing and rest your eyes until your eyesight returns to normal.
You can relieve the headache using over-the-counter painkillers or just place a damp towel over your head.
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