The visual changes that can accompany migraines in general can be pretty weird to experience, as anyone who’s had one will tell you (hello, that's me). But for people who experience ocular migraines, also known as retinal migraines, the visual changes are a little different — and can be kind of scary.
Dr. Rudrani Banik, a neuro-ophthalmologist at New York Eye and Ear Infirmary of Mount Sinai, tells Bustle that there’s often some confusion surrounding these types of migraines. “Ocular migraine … is actually a different type of symptom and different physiology" than a regular migraine, Dr. Banik says. Basically, with a regular migraine, you can experience what's called an aura that may or may not come before the headache you commonly associate with a migraine.
Some people have sensory auras like a prickly sensation or strange smells, or they may hear sounds with auditory auras. With an ocular migraine, you'll only experience visual aura, but you might not get the associated head pain, according to the American Migraine Foundation. You might, however, see strange visual patterns like zig zag lines, shooting stars, or what looks like colored, fractured light. It might look like a kaleidoscope. With retinal/ocular migraines, however, it’s not unusual for just one eye to be affected. You might also experience temporary vision loss in the affected eye, but this usually resolves.
Typical migraines with aura temporarily distort your vision, and include flashes of light and blind spots, among other visual disturbances, that resolve pretty quickly. Ocular migraines are “a different entity,” Dr. Banik says, “and even many doctors get it confused." With an ocular migraine, the visual distortion happens in just one eye, and it won't "that shimmering quality to it." Though a migraine aura may appear to be occurring in just one eye, if you do an eye cover test, you’ll see that migraine aura is actually affecting both eyes, Dr. Banik says.
Permanent vision loss can happen with retinal migraines, but this is rare. Still, those who experience retinal migraine symptoms are advised to check in with a doctor to make sure that there’s no risk of vision loss, the American Migraine Foundation says.
Dr. Banik says that the visual disturbances that accompany both types of migraines are usually harmless, but if it’s the first time you’re experiencing this phenomenon, go see your doctor to double check that your symptoms are just migraine related, and not related to another health issue.
Treatment for migraines can include the use of preventive/prophylactic medications, and the visual disturbances that accompany migraines tend to quickly resolve on their own. Not everyone actually experiences headaches with migraines, but if you do, these will also go away with time and rest.
That said, Dr. Banik recommends that migraine patients keep a migraine journal or diary. Knowing what your migraine triggers are — like dehydration, lack of sleep, stress, flickering lights from computers and light fixtures, and strenuous exercise, for instance — can help you prevent symptoms moving forward.