What Causes Visual Migraines? 9 Questions About The Phenomenon, Answered

A migraine is kind of like a sh*tty version of your first love. When you’re a kid, you hear a lot about what it might feel like and you may see it happen to someone else, but you’ll never truly know what the experience is like until it hits you — hard and fast. According to the Migraine Research Foundation, migraines affect 12 percent of the American population (that's more than diabetes and asthma combined), and, as anybody who has ever had one knows, they're often much more debilitating than they seem on the surface. But what causes a visual migraine? And since they don't really hurt as much, why are they classified as a migraine, anyway? 

One in every 200 people who suffer from classic migraines are also afflicted by visual migraines. The symptoms and side effects of visual migraines are different than the typical headache, but they can be incredibly crippling. People generally have to stop everything they're doing, even normal activities like driving or reading, to merely endure the effects of a visual migraine. 

Because these kinds of migraines aren't talked about very often, you might be wondering what they are — and if you've had a visual migraine without realizing it. Stress no more: here's everything you need to know about visual migraines. 

What Is A Visual Migraine?

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Officially referred to as a retinal or ocular migraine, a visual migraine is a rare eye disorder that can either accompany a normal migraine or exist on its own. It's essentially a scotoma, which is transient monocular visual loss, in one eye, usually lasting anywhere between 10 minutes and an hour. 

Sometimes it occurs alongside a moderately or very painful headache, but that's not always the case; it could just be a trippy visual experience, which we'll dive into more below.  

What Are The Symptoms?

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Retinal migraines play bizarre tricks on your mind, and things can get weirdly psychedelic. You might see flashing lights, zigzagging lines, shimmering stars, or floating patterns. People have reported blind spots or complete loss of vision in the affected eye for 10-20 minutes. According to National Health Service, some folks “see a mosaic-like pattern of blank spots,” which could potentially get so intense that you fully lose sight for a second. 

Do They Always Come With A Headache? 

An accompanying headache isn’t always a given for a visual migraine, but there's a possibility you'll feel a pounding in your skull before, during, or after the retinal migraine. This particular part of the experience will probably last a little bit longer than the visuals, even up to 72 hours. The combined agony of this and the visuals may cause nausea or vomiting

Because the word migraine is tossed in the mix, you might think excruciating pain is a given. It is possible, though, to experience a visual migraine that contains all the normal visual symptoms, like flashing lights and weird patterns, without the incessant pounding at the back of your head. So, if you've got no headache, don't be so quick to decide that it wasn't a visual migraine. 

That being said, don't be surprised if you're hit with all these unpleasantly intense sensations at once — and you suddenly have the urge to lie down and crawl into the fetal position. 

How Do I Know For Sure It's A Visual Migraine? 

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When you're trying to decide if it's a true visual migraine, know that this bad boy is often confused with a migraine with aura, which is something different. A migraine with aura is a more common headache at the front or side of your noggin, accounting for 20 percent of all migraines — and because they generate from the brain (unlike a visual migraine, which stems from the retina), you'll still see the strange visuals if you close your eyes. Like visual migraines, there is a small chance you won't always experience physical pain at all. If that's the case, it would be classified as a silent migraine, a classic migraine that doesn't include headache pangs. 

The big distinction between the two types of migraines is how many eyes it affects. If it's wreaking havoc on both your eyeballs, rather than just one, you've got a migraine with aura. A visual migraine, on the other hand, affects just one eye, and every subsequent one you get will manifest in that same eye. The vision in both of our eyes tends to blur together, so if you're having trouble figuring it out, cover one eye and then the other, until you can identify where the strange visuals are truly coming from. 

What Causes Them?

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Experts can’t say for sure what the culprit is for visual migraines, although a spasm in the blood vessels, which results in reduction of blood flow to the brain, is named as a very probable source. According to Healthline, many doctors believe that the causes of visual migraines are the same for classic migraines, but because there has never been much funding put into researching exactly what these causes are, that doesn't leave us with much more information. 

Can I Prevent Them?

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For starters, know your triggers. Everybody's are different, but it's not hard for people to pinpoint what it is that personally sets them off. A visual migraine could be sparked by a number of things, including but not limited to: an intense period of stress, several days of disrupted sleep, pungent and powerful smells, or eating certain foods that don’t sit well with your body, such as monosodium glutamate and artificial sweeteners. Offensively bright lights and abrupt sounds are also common catalysts. 

Keep a notebook (or as Healthline suggests, a "headache diary") detailing everything before each attack — what you felt, what you ate, where you were etc. Then bring all the relevant information to your doctor so the both of you can decide together what prevention methods are best for you.

Speaking of seeing a doctor, the second you experience loss of vision that lasts after the visual migraine has ended is the moment you should visit a medical professional. Generally, this points to a more serious condition that extends further than the migraine itself. 

What Can I Do To Treat Them?

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Due to the fact that visual migraines aren't extremely common, there hasn't been much research done to determine the best medical treatment. There are some prescription and over-the-counter medications that are used to lessen the psychedelic discomfort. Something as simple as aspirin could reduce the pain, but beta-blockers and drugs used to treat epilepsy can also be helpful. 

Don't reach for anything, though, before consulting your doctor. What works for another person may be totally wrong for you, and the best way to make an informed decision is alongside a medical professional. 

Who Tends To Be Affected By Them?

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Like pretty much everything else, you can blame your genes for migraines. If just one of your parents suffers from regular migraines, your chance of living with them increases by 40 percent. Although there aren't specific statistics on how retinal migraines are passed down along the generations, experts say with certainty that family history plays a big role

Women tend to suffer from these migraines more often than men, and individuals over the age of 40 are more likely to have them as well. Someone who has been diagnosed with lupus, sickle cell disease, or epilepsy is at a higher risk as well. Finally, there are two other complicated-sounding diseases that are strongly connected to visual migraines: antiphospholipid syndrome, an immune system disorder that increases your risk for blood clot; and giant cell arteritis, inflammation of the arteries in the head and neck. 

Should I Be Worried If I Get Them A Lot?

In most cases, visual migraines aren't considered extremely serious conditions, but there are a rare few out there in which visual migraines point to something important in the body that has gone undiagnosed, such as blood clots, a tumor, or a detached retina. All these are as scary as they sound, so don't waste any time demanding a medical exam in order to rule them out if you're getting frequent visual migraines. 

It’s not ordinary to suffer permanent blindness from visual migraines, but there is a possibility that the continued reduction in blood flow could wreck the well-being of your retina and eye blood vessels. See an eye doctor so they can scope it out and assess what your level of risk is. 

Images: Piotr Marcinksi/Fotolia; Giphy (8)

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