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Ocular Migraines: A Visual Phenomena

Migraines affect many people, especially during the changing seasons when pressure changes take place in the atmosphere. A small portion of those who suffer from migraine attacks experience painless but visually symptomatic complications caused by these headaches. We examine ocular migraines and their visual disturbances or auras.


Migraines without aura

Common or migraines without aura are more than just an intensely painful headache. Attacks can be completely disabling, and can force the sufferer to abandon everyday activities, generally for up to three days. Migraine attacks normally last between four and 72 hours and sufferers are usually symptom free between attacks.


In Canada, it is estimated that approximately 2.7 million people have been diagnosed with migraines, but Statistics Canada indicates this underrepresents the number of Canadians who suffer from migraines, as many are not reported to doctors.


Migraines with aura

A separate category of this medical condition is a migraine with aura, which is a brief period of visual disturbance in one or both eyes. The visual disturbance you see during this period is referred to as an aura. The ailment has been referred to in various ways over the years as research has progressed. Some alternatives include migraines-sans-migraines, migraine equivalent, eye, acephalgic, visual, ocular, painless, ophthalmic, or retinal migraines, or simply migraine aura without headache. Today it is most often referred to a migraine aura without headache.


This health complication refers to the visual disturbances experienced when a migraine occurs. Common symptoms include seeing zig zag patterns or flashing lights in your visual field, being overcome with dizziness or vertigo, and a stiffness or tingling sensation in the neck, shoulders and limbs. Aura migraineurs have also noted problems with co-ordination, difficulty speaking, and occasionally loss of consciousness. Everyone experiences symptoms differently, but most often the visual phenomena lasts anywhere from a few minutes to half an hour.


Although these visual changes don’t affect your visual acuity, it can lead to impairment and reduction of mobility. Often sufferers additionally experience irritability and euphoria interchangeably, excessive yawning, and difficulty finding the right words when speaking. It is estimated that only about 15% of migraineurs deal with aura.


Who is at risk?

Migraine aura without headache most commonly occurs later in life, and more often in men than in women. Because they are difficult to diagnose due to the absence of pain and headache, sufferers should seek assistance from a doctor to rule out any other health complications that could cause vertigo, visual disturbances, and numbness, such as stroke, complications with vision, and seizures. The difference between a stroke and a migraine aura is that symptoms develop relatively slowly, and then spread and intensify, while stroke symptoms are sudden.


Migraines are a genetically based disease. Research has shown that migraines are triggered by the activation of a mechanism found in the brain that releases inflammatory substances around the nerves and blood vessels in the head and brain. Why this happens and what brings about the spontaneous resolution of an ocular migraine remains unknown.


Triggers and treatment

Some of the most common migraine triggers (including ophthalmic or ocular migraines) can include certain foods, such as aged cheeses, caffeinated drinks, red wine, smoked meats, and chocolate. Food additives like monosodium glutamate (MSG) and artificial sweeteners have also been known to trigger migraines in some individuals. Other potential triggers include cigarette smoke, perfumes, strong odours, glaring or flickering lights, lack of sleep, and emotional stress.


Migraines and ocular migraines can be treated with medication and sometimes anti-seizure drugs. If you experience symptoms, doctors will be quicker to diagnose you with a migraine with aura if they are aware of a familial or genetic link. The process of diagnosis may involve a CT scan, MRI, blood tests, and/or eye exams.


For more information about ocular migraines, make an appointment with the knowledgeable staff at your local Visique clinic.