I was consulting with a patient when suddenly I began to see light flashes as if looking through shattered glass. I had a dull headache over my right eye that morning but discounted it as having been on the computer too many hours the day before. As the symptoms worsened, I called my eye doctor and rushed to her office, fearing the worse. Upon examination, she assured me I had all the symptoms of an ocular migraine; to which I responded, “What in the heck is that?” That said, most any other diagnosis was welcome other than the dreaded detached retina with its harrowing recovery.
The eye doctor did see a clouding of the lens, often forming after cataract surgery; which I had a few years back. The following information is the result of my research to assist you in better understanding, and dealing with, this type of ocular occurrence should you experience it. As always, if you have any unusual eye symptoms do not “doctor yourself” — see an eye care physician immediately
Ophthalmic (eye) migraines are quite common and often painless, although the solo term “migraine” usually brings to mind a severe type of headache. As a child, I experienced debilitating migraines; years later we discovered these were brought on by a famous brand of soup I consumed several times a week that contained significant amounts of MSG. This ocular migraine is completely different; I was fortunate that the pain in this recent situation was a dull ache, not the typical head-splitting migraine pain.
With eye-related migraines, visual disturbances with or without headache pain also can accompany migraine processes thought to be related to changes in blood flow in the brain. These visual problems associated with migraines technically are known as ophthalmic migraines, but are much more commonly (though incorrectly) called ocular migraines. Because most laypeople understand the term better, this article refers to the condition as “ocular migraine.”
Migraines can be produced by the body’s neurological responses to certain triggers such as hormonal changes, flashing lights or chemicals in foods or medications. One result of these triggers may be an intense headache that, if untreated, can last for hours or even days.
During migraine processes, changes also may take place in blood flow to the area of the brain responsible for vision (visual cortex or occipital lobe). Resulting ophthalmic or ocular migraines commonly produce visual symptoms even without a headache.
Ocular Migraine Symptoms
People with ocular migraines can have a variety of visual symptoms. Typically you will see a small, enlarging blind spot (scotoma) in your central vision with bright, flickering lights (scintillations) or a shimmering zigzag line (metamorphopsia) inside the blind spot. The blind spot usually enlarges and may move across your field of vision. This entire migraine phenomenon may end in only a few minutes, but usually lasts as long as about 20–30 minutes; the headache can last for days, even with dull non-debilitating pain.
Met·a·mor·phop·si·a — a visual disorder in which images appear distorted in various ways; usually a defect in vision in which objects are seen as distorted in shape, which results from disease of the retina or imperfection of the media.
An anomaly of visual perception in which objects appear distorted in shape or of different size or in a different location than the actual object. It may be due to a displacement of the visual receptors as a result of inflammation, tumor or retinal detachment, it can be of central origin (e.g. migraine, drug intoxication, and neurosis or brain injury).
It is also caused by the accumulation of subretinal fluid in the macula resulting in metamorphopsia and blurring of vision.
Generally, ocular migraines are considered harmless, usually painless, cause no permanent visual or brain damage and do not require treatment. That said, always consult your eye doctor when you have unusual vision symptoms, because it is possible that you have another condition requiring treatment, such as a detached retina, which should be checked out immediately.
Why we get ocular migraines?
There are three prevalent causes:
- Overtiredness — i.e. too much computer work and/or reading, not enough rest;
- After cataract surgery if a cloudy substance forms behind the lens; putting pressure on the optic nerves as well as clouding the field of vision (this is what occurred in my case);
- Migraines — more serious and more painful localized headaches often triggered by specific causes such as toxic food ingredients, specifically MSG, nitrates and sulfites.
The cause of the ocular migraine is thought to begin with arteries in the brain which spasm, precipitated by stress, hormonal fluctuations, certain medications, foods containing tyramine or phenylalanine (e.g., cheese, chocolate), fatigue, post cataract surgery and alcohol. The result is reduction in blood flow in that artery, followed by blood vessel dilation over-filling those vessels, causing the throbbing or “pounding” headache.
What to do for an Ocular Migraine
Unfortunately, a visit to the eye doctor may produce few answers in terms of how to treat or prevent ocular migraines. This is because processes that trigger ophthalmic migraines are poorly understood.
The vision symptoms accompanying painless ocular migraines are not related directly to the eyes. Instead, these visual symptoms occur as a result of the migraine “activity” in the visual cortex of the brain located in the back of the skull. As described above, your vision and visual acuity will be affected significantly during an ophthalmic migraine attack or episode.
If sharp vision is essential for your safety, then you should stop what you are doing immediately. If you are driving, pull over until the ocular migraine passes and your vision has cleared.
Stay still until the ocular migraine resolves. If you have concerns about unusual or lingering vision symptoms, visit your eye doctor or physician for a checkup. Normally, ophthalmic migraines do not require treatment.
The Way I See It…
Relieving an Ocular Migraine, Naturally
• Apply cold compresses to reduce swelling and relieve headache.
• As with typical migraine headaches, it may help to close eyes, remove light sources or retire to a darkened room, reduce or remove other stimuli, and relax in a prone position for a period of time.
• Hydrate well and drink water at roomtemperature.
• Use an over-the-counter homeopathic lubricating eye drop without added chemicals such as Similasan for computer eyes, available at health food stores. It is formulated to stimulate the eye’s natural ability to relieve eyestrain due to intense computer work, TV, reading, writing or night driving. The homeopathic complex with its active ingredients provides relief without known side effects or drug interactions and does not cause a rebound effect.
• I take a supplement that encourages blood flow — a complex that provides a plant-based formula for smoother blood flow, stronger blood vessel walls, and pacifies inflammatory responses. I have taken 2 twice a day since my much written about accident and the subsequent blood clots; it keeps my blood clotting time in the healthy range and provides overall support for blood flow. The formula I use is a plant-based systemic enzyme formula containing nattokinase, the proteolytic enzyme bromelain and papain, known to effectively rebalance the body’s inflammatory response. The complex I use also contains rutin to strengthen capillaries and other connective tissue, and white willow bark, which is often called “nature’s aspirin.”
• Use an herbal complex known to assist with inflammation as well as blood flow. In my practice I use a proprietary herbal liquid complex of Curcuma (turmeric) and Bupleurum root (Chai Hu). These two ancient herbs work synergistically as potent anti-inflammatory agents and have been proved in experimental models. Even more potent than its volatile oil is the yellow or orange pigment of turmeric, called curcumin — the primary pharmacological agent in turmeric. In numerous studies, curcumin’s anti-inflammatory effects have been shown to be comparable to the potent drugs hydrocortisone and phenylbutazone as well as over-the-counter anti-inflammatory agents such as Motrin. Unlike the drugs, which are associated with significant toxic effects (ulcer formation, decreased white blood cell count, intestinal bleeding), curcumin produces no toxicity. Bupleurum is credited for invigorating the circulatory system and blood vessel strength. Together these two herbs in a tincture make up an extraordinary complex to assist with any circulatory and inflammatory disorders; especially those related to the eyes. I take 20 drops in a little bit of water twice a day, anytime — an easy, healthy, inexpensive way to support overall circulatory health and, of course, the windows to our souls, our eyes.