An ocular migraine (also known as a retinal migraine) is an eye condition that causes temporary visual disturbances, including brief attacks of vision loss or other visual problems which usually occur in one eye. Although they can be alarming, they’re usually nothing to worry about and symptoms will normally disappear on their own after around 30 minutes.
Ocular migraine symptoms
- Temporary loss of vision in one eye (normally the same eye each time)
- Blurry vision - or blurred vision in one eye
- Flashing lights, squiggly patterns or blind spots across your field of vision
- A headache before, during or after you experience vision loss Loss of peripheral vision
Any vision loss you experience will normally last for about 10-20 minutes before your sight starts to return gradually. In some cases it can be longer, but it’s not common for it to last more than an hour.
Ocular migraines are different to a migraine with aura, which can involve flashing lights and blind spots, and usually affects both eyes. Ocular migraines don’t always have accompanying head pain or headache like a normal migraine.
Ocular migraine causes
An ocular migraine happens when the blood flow to the eye becomes restricted due to a sudden narrowing of the blood vessels. Once the vessels relax, normal blood flow returns and symptoms clear. Usually this will have no lasting damage to the eye.
Common causes of ocular migraines include:
- High blood pressure
- Low blood sugar
- Excessive heat
- Bending over
- Certain types of contraceptives
They’re also more common in women, people over 40, and those with a family history of migraines or headaches. Avoiding these triggers is the first step in preventing ocular migraines. So keep a note of when you get an attack so that you can work out what your trigger is.
Diagnosing ocular migraines
Ocular migraines can be diagnosed through examining the eyes during an eye test, and asking a series of questions about the symptoms. It’s important to rule out other conditions with similar symptoms. Once diagnosed, treatment for the ocular migraines and advice on preventing them can be discussed.
Headaches behind the eye or ocular migraines?
It’s important not to confuse ocular migraines (or retinal migraines) with generalised headaches behind the eye. Ocular migraines happen as a result of reduced blood flow to the eye, due to a sudden narrowing of the blood vessels, and usually occur in just one eye.
On the other hand, headaches behind the eyes are usually a symptom of traditional headache-type migraines, which can be caused by a number of conditions and external stimuli. Sensitivity to bright light (also known as photophobia), some prescription medications or simply staring at digital screens for too long can all lead to migraines and headaches behind the eyes.
Headaches behind the eye in people over 40
In particular, people over the age of 40 may begin experiencing headaches behind the eyes more frequently as they get older due to a condition called presbyopia. As the eyes age, it can become more difficult for them to focus on objects up-close, causing them to squint and strain in order to see more clearly. This strain can lead to feelings of pain behind the eyes, alongside soreness and redness.
With other common conditions such as blurry vision, digital eye strain, and difficulty seeing up-close, it’s best to have your eyesight checked by an optician if you’re concerned.
Ocular migraine treatments
Treatment for ocular migraines isn’t always necessary as symptoms are often temporary, and usually go away on their own after about half an hour.
We’d recommend resting your eyes until your symptoms pass, and taking painkillers as recommended if you have an accompanying headache. Otherwise, the best thing you can do is to avoid exposure to common triggers. If you ever have any concerns, it’s best to contact your local optician, or book an appointment with your GP. If you have any concerns about the frequency of your ocular migraines, visit your GP who may also be able to recommend further treatment, like medications that can prevent ocular migraines from happening.
Because ocular migraine symptoms are similar to those caused by a stroke-type event in the eye, it’s important that you seek medical advice from your GP quickly so that further investigations can be considered.
If you’re ever concerned about ocular migraines, or have noticed a recent change in your vision more generally, it’s best to book an appointment with your optician so they can take a closer look at your eyes as a priority.
Alternatively, you can learn more about other common eye conditions here.