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What is an Ophthalmic Migraine?

By Jacquelyn Gilchrist
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Ophthalmic migraines are often called ocular or eye migraines. They are relatively common and may cause traditional migraine symptoms, such as pain, as well as visual disturbances. While inconvenient, an ophthalmic migraine is generally considered to be a harmless medical condition.

Migraines are typically associated with headache pain, however, patients with these kinds of migraines may not experience this every time. Instead, these episodes usually cause a migraine aura, or visual disturbance. During these, patients may see blind spots in their field of vision, flashes of light, or blinking zig-zag patterns. They may also see spots, or stars.

When an ophthalmic migraine interferes with the vision, patients should take some safety precautions. For example, if driving, the patient should pull over to the side of the road and wait for it to pass. Similarly, patients should not operate machinery during an episode. Simply sitting down and waiting for it to pass should help prevent any physical harm from vision distortion.

While the exact cause is speculative, it is generally thought to be connected to disturbances in the blood flow of the brain. Despite the use of terms like ophthalmic and ocular, these migraines originate in a patient's brain. These episodes may be caused by the constriction, or tightening, of the brain's blood vessels.

Certain people may be more susceptible to developing an ophthalmic migraine. It is possible that women, particularly those under 40 years old, are more at risk for these episodes. Having a family history of migraines may also put a person at a higher risk. They may also be more common in people who also have certain other medical conditions, like depression and epilepsy.

It is possible for this type of migraine to be triggered by external or internal stimuli, such as changes in the barometric pressure of the air or in a person's hormones. Caffeine and food additives, such as MSG, may also trigger migraines. Sleep deprivation, stress, and prescription medications, as well as alcohol consumption may also trigger an ocular migraine.

Patients who suspect that they may be suffering from ocular migraines should consult with their doctors. While the migraines themselves are generally harmless, the patient may be suffering from a different medical condition that presents similar symptoms. For example, a retinal detachment also causes light flashes and similar visual disturbances. If the patient is experiencing this condition, rather than an ocular migraine, he will need surgery as soon as possible to prevent permanent vision loss.

An ophthalmic migraine is generally not treated, as it subsides on its own. Patients may suffer from them occasionally or frequently. Frequent or severe episodes of the migraines may be alleviated with medication. Additionally, patients can evaluate possible triggers, and take measures to reduce or eliminate them.

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Discussion Comments

By anon993152 — On Oct 26, 2015

I have recently been experiencing this as well. I describe it as kaleidoscope vision. It lasts about 20 minutes, but is very uncomfortable. No headache before, during or after.

By anon931875 — On Feb 10, 2014

If you've never broken your arm, it's hard to understand what breaking your arm feels like - so true is it with ocular migraines.

Although my head never hurts, as with a typical headache, the flashing light that I experience is sickening. I see the lights in both eyes and even when I close my eyes, I can still see the movement of those flashing lights.

As I said about a broken arm, until you experience it yourself, you can't really understand what its like - but trust me, do not sign up to experience it yourself. You can't imagine how bad it is.

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