What causes ocular migraines?

18 March 2021

Author: Kate Green

ocular migraine

What is an ocular migraine?


An ocular migraine (also sometimes referred to as a retinal migraine) is an eye condition which causes temporary loss of vision or visual problems such as flashing lights or spots, affecting one eye. The visual effects are usually over within around half an hour from onset and are usually harmless, if rather unsettling at the time. These visual problems can then sometimes be followed by a painful headache. The migraine is caused by the blood vessels in the eye suddenly constricting and reducing the eye’s blood flow. After a while, the blood vessels relax, allowing blood to pass through again, and sight returns.


What triggers an ocular migraine?


Ocular migraines can be triggered by a number of factors. Quite often, people are genetically predisposed to suffering more from migraines, especially women aged under 40. Otherwise, ocular migraines can be brought on by:

  • Stress
  • Contraceptive pill
  • Smoking
  • Low blood sugar
  • Bending over or standing up quickly
  • Dehydration
  • Hot environments
  • High altitude or changing weather
  • Bright lights
  • Exercise
  • Use of drugs
  • Consumption of certain foods, caffeine or alcohol
  • Changes in hormone levels e.g. pregnancy or menopause


After your first episode, it is important to visit your doctor to check if there are any underlying conditions that caused your ocular migraine. Ocular migraines sometimes occur as a side effect of a number of health issues including:

  • Brain tumours
  • Traumatic head injuries
  • Aneurysms
  • Seizures
  • Inflammation in the brain


Finding out the cause of your ocular migraine could potentially help you get treatment for a more serious condition that you didn’t know you had.


What are the symptoms of an ocular migraine?


At the onset of an ocular migraine, you may experience some visual changes. These can last anywhere from half an hour up to several hours. The symptoms include:

  • Seeing blind spots
  • Shimmering or flashing lights across visual field
  • Zigzag patterns


Either accompanying these symptoms, or coming afterwards, you may experience the classic migraine headache, which could be even more disruptive and unsettling than the visual symptoms themselves. You might also have nausea or vomiting and be particularly sensitive to light and sound. You should only experience visual disturbances in one eye with an ocular migraine, and it is likely to affect the same eye in any subsequent episodes. If it affects both eyes, it’s probably a different condition, migraine with aura.


How can I prevent an ocular migraine?


Making sure you’re well hydrated, eating a balanced diet, and are in overall good health when it comes to your blood pressure and blood sugar levels, should go a long way to helping reduce the occurrence of ocular migraines. In terms of treating any pain that comes with the ocular migraine, you can take pain relief such as paracetamol or ibuprofen, as well as reduce your exposure to the triggers we discussed earlier in this blog post. You may also be able to have anti-epileptic medication prescribed to you, which can help prevent migraines. However, there is still plenty of research to be done when it comes to treating ocular migraines.


To help with the pain, you might find it useful to:

  • Lie down in a dark room
  • Massage your scalp or temples
  • Sit in a quiet environment
  • Drink water


Should I see a doctor for an ocular migraine?


You should see your doctor after your first instance of visual disturbance. They will likely conduct some examinations on your eyes to determine whether or not your ocular migraine is something to be worried about. After that, you may just be given advice on how to manage the symptoms and the pain, and advised to contact your doctor again if they increase in frequency or severity. You might also be prescribed medication to help reduce the intensity of the migraines.

Back to Blog