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What is an ocular migraine? If you’re unfamiliar with the term, you might size it up pretty quickly as a severe headache centered in the area of your eyes. You would be partially right.
After all, the word “ocular” comes from the Late Latin word ocularis—literally “of the eye”—and dates to c. 1500, according to the Collins English Dictionary. And, of course, we know migraines as severe, debilitating headaches.
An ocular migraine, then, is centered around our eyes—often a single eye, as the condition typically (but not always) affects one side. However, in the case of ocular migraines, there may or may not be headache pain. In fact, technically, an ocular migraine is a “visual disturbance,” as we describe in the “Ocular Migraine Symptoms” section below.
Ocular Migraine Symptoms
Ocular migraines aren’t common, but they do affect 1 in every 200 migraine headache sufferers. The type of visual disturbances these patients may experience are out of the ordinary—flashing lights or “halos” that affect your vision, for example, or what’s known as an “aura.”
An aura, according to the National Headache Foundation (NHF), is a “warning sign of a migraine that usually occurs before the headache and can last five to 60 minutes, usually about 20 minutes.” Auras commonly produce such visual symptoms “as flashing lights, zig-zag lines resembling forts (known as ‘fortification spectra’), or blind spots in your vision,” the NHF says.
If a visual disturbance progresses into a painful headache—often with throbbing on one side only—it’s called a “migraine with aura.” A “migraine without aura” won’t have the same warning signs that “disturb” our vision and other senses.
Someone experiencing an ocular migraine also may find himself dealing with these types of accompanying symptoms:
- Heightened sensitivity to lights
- Vision loss
- Blind spots
Because an ocular migraine usually takes place in one eye, a patient may take special note of symptoms in the affected eye by covering the unaffected eye.
And how long do symptoms last? They can strike for just a few hours, if you’re lucky, or could drag on for a few days. While they may be alarming and worrisome, symptoms are temporary and not considered to be indicative of a serious condition. However, until symptoms subside, you’ll find it difficult to focus on such tasks as reading and writing or even moving around or driving a car.
What Causes Ocular Migraines?
Scientists continue to study ocular migraine causes, and thus far point to retinal artery spasms or giant cell arteritis as the culprits. Giant cell arteritis—sometimes called temporal arteritis—is an inflammation of the lining of arteries that may cause swelling of the blood vessels.
Triggers may be related to genetics—do you know of other family members who have experienced ocular migraine symptoms?—or to high-volume noises and sounds and bright lights.
Ocular Migraine Treatment
If the symptoms above sound familiar to you, it’s wise to see your healthcare provider, even if those symptoms disappear on their own. (And, according to data, ocular migraines typically clear up inside of an hour.)
When an ocular migraine strikes, common sense will lead you to curtail reading, computer use, or physical activity and to rest your eyes. Over-the-counter pain relievers may ease any pain related to an ocular migraine.
One danger with ocular migraines, for those who tend to experience them, is a loss of vision in the affected eye or eyes. The medical community is researching the viability of migraine-prevention medications—and even anti-seizure medications—as ways to treat the condition.
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