Ocular Migraine: Headache or Not, It Can Be Disturbing

The term itself hints at where this condition originates: An ocular migraine is a “visual disturbance” sometimes—but not always—accompanied by migraine headache symptoms.

ocular migraine

An ocular migraine---characterized as a "visual disturbance"---typically affects just one eye, and doesn't necessarily come with the pain we associate with migraines.

© Phovoir | Dreamstime

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
  • Nausea
  • 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.

For related reading, see these University Health News posts:

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Larry Canale

Larry Canale has been editorial director or editor-in-chief of a number of launches in the areas of consumer magazines, newsletters, and websites for Belvoir Media Group. Since early 2019, he … Read More

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  • I have been having ocular migraines for 60 years and have never been able to find a reason. They last exactly 20 minutes, so when it starts, I look at my watch and watch the jagged lines build up and then work their way out the other side of my eye. I have drawn pictures to show my doctor. Occasionally, I have had two in a row, 20 minutes each for a total of 40 minutes. When I was younger I had pain for 1 hour and would be in a 24 hour syndrome (feeling washed out) afterward, but now I have no pain afterward.

  • I am in my 60s. In late November 2015, I had my first ocular migraine, and I’ve had 88 more since then. (Once OMs like mine start, they seem to be here for life?) Not long before my initial OM, I had 2 cataract removal/implant surgeries, and there was a problem with the anesthesia during the 2nd procedure. Also I had exposure to carbon monoxide from a faulty furnace about a month prior to my OM onset. Could either of these 2 episodes be a possible cause of my OMs? I have had 2 OM occurences where they were in both eyes, rendering me sightless. Even when the OM is in one eye, I cannot see out of the affected eye. Since OMs appear suddenly, without warning, they are one reason I gave up driving. A very good ophthalmologist worked with me, but no one seems to know what causes these. Avoiding a stress/fatigue pattern may help, but not always. My OMs typically last from @ 20 to 23 minutes, though one went on for 60 minutes. My doctor said to contact a professional if an OM lasts 45 minutes or more, because of stroke concerns. Hopefully research into OMs will do more than come up with a lucrative drug to Rx, and help those of us who who have them to address them in non-pharmaceutical ways as well.

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