While head pain is the most common migraine symptom, visual disturbances are another defining feature for some. This might make you wonder about a phenomenon sometimes called “ocular migraine.” What makes this somewhat confusing is that even though “ocular migraine” is a popular colloquial term to describe a specific type of migraine with visual disturbances, it’s not a strict medical term with a clear definition. But it is true that there’s more than one way to experience the hell that is a migraine, and some migraine experiences can be especially perplexing thanks to the in-your-face visuals that literally no one asked for. Here’s everything you need to know about this phenomenon sometimes known as ocular migraine, from symptoms and causes to how to deal when one strikes.
What is an ocular migraine? | What is an ocular migraine aura? | Symptoms of ocular migraine | What causes ocular migraine? | Ocular migraine triggers | Ocular migraine treatment | Ocular migraine prevention
What is an ocular migraine?
Honestly, it depends on who you ask. “Ocular migraine” can be a confusing term, according to the Mayo Clinic1. Some experts use the term “ocular migraine” to describe when you experience the visual disturbances (known as aura) that can come with migraine, but not necessarily the achiness most people envision when they think of the condition, neurologist Andrew Charles, M.D., director of the UCLA Goldberg Migraine Program, tells SELF. So, in that instance, having an ocular migraine is like experiencing all the trippy visuals you might catch at a concert or music festival—but at the most inopportune times (and…minus the music). Obviously, this isn’t something you want popping up out of the blue.
While ocular migraine isn’t necessarily a specific type of migraine, the phrase refers to a unique experience that some people with migraine have: a migraine with aura but without pain. You might also hear this type of migraine referred to as an acephalgic migraine (cephalgia means head pain2, so acephalgic is the lack of it). While a migraine without pain may sound like no big deal, the visual disturbances that accompany an ocular migraine can interfere with your life in very real ways.
Ocular migraine is a type of silent migraine, which is a catch-all description experts sometimes use for migraine attacks that don’t necessarily cause pain. While an ocular migraine is one form of silent migraine, these terms aren’t interchangeable, Ilan Danan, M.D., M.Sc., a neurologist at the Center for Sports Neurology and Pain Medicine at Cedars-Sinai Kerlan-Jobe Institute in Los Angeles, tells SELF. (For example, if you have other sensory disturbances like hearing music but don’t have head pain, that counts as a silent migraine but not an ocular one.)
As if migraine lingo isn’t confusing enough, sometimes people use the term “ocular migraine” to refer to what doctors call a retinal migraine. A retinal migraine is a rare condition in which a person with migraine has repeated bouts of reduced vision or even blindness in one eye, which could happen before or alongside head pain, according to the Mayo Clinic3. It’s crucial to note that a loss of vision in one eye is more often caused by other things than retinal migraine, so it’s important to seek medical attention if you’re not sure it’s a migraine.
All of this is to say that if you’re experiencing these kinds of issues, it’s good to be as specific as possible when talking about this issue with your doctor since “ocular migraine” may mean different things to different people. For the purposes of this article, when discussing ocular migraine, we’re referring to a migraine that comes with visual disturbances without the pain.
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What is an ocular migraine aura?
So, let’s talk aura, those sensory changes that can accompany migraine (but don’t always). Aura most often manifests as visual disturbances, according to the Mayo Clinic4. But you could also experience different sensations, like hearing music or feeling like someone is touching you. When we’re talking about an ocular migraine, we’re only talking about the visual symptoms.
While some people experience an aura before their migraine headache strikes, an ocular migraine refers to the experience of only experiencing visual disturbances—without the stereotypical migraine head pain.
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Symptoms of ocular migraine
An ocular migraine can have you seeing stars…literally. Or you might get squiggles, or blind spots, or other visual mayhem that makes it very difficult—if not impossible—to see. As you might imagine, this can make it hard to do pretty much anything, so an ocular migraine can really ruin your day.
Here are some of the common visual disturbances that happen with a migraine aura, according to a review article published in the Journal of Headache and Pain5:
- Bright flashes of light
- Foggy or blurred vision
- Zigzag lines in your vision
- Blind spots
- Several bright dots or stars
- Distorted vision that’s almost like looking through water or oil
- Tunnel vision
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What causes ocular migraine?
The cause of ocular migraine is “complicated and often debated,” Ann Morrison, O.D., a clinical instructor at the Ohio State University College of Optometry, tells SELF.
One potential factor is misfiring electrical activity in your brain. “An electrical impulse causes abnormal electrical activity that spreads over the surface of the brain, triggering the migraine,” says Dr. Danan. The thinking is that if that waves of abnormal activity travel across your visual cortex, the part of your brain that processes visual signals, you can wind up with an ocular migraine, according to the Mayo Clinic6.
It’s worth noting that the causes of migraine, in general, aren’t well understood. According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke7 (NINDS), researchers once thought that migraine was caused by the dilation and constriction of blood vessels in the brain, new research suggests that migraine is tied to our genetics, which could explain why having a family history of migraine can up your own risk of experiencing it.