Ocular migraine

What's an ocular migraine? How does it differ from a typical migraine? And what can you do about it? Migraine symptoms can be disturbing and frightening, especially if you don't know what's happening.

As you may know, a typical migraine isn't all that typical. Many people don't realize that migraine often doesn't involve a headache at all, but a host of other symptoms that may be less painful but can be just as disturbing.

Just what is Ocular Migraine?

That may be a trickier question than you think!  The term ocular migraine is actually not used in the official classifications from the International Headache Society.  As a result, the term has been used in different ways, and may be referring to different conditions.

I've found that it most often refers to what is now called retinal migraine.  Retinal migraine is what we will primarily talk about on this page.

However, this term may also refer to a much more common type of migraine, called migraine aura without headache.  This type of migraine does not bring on a headache, but only "aura", usually strange visual disturbances.  Read more about migraine aura and migraine aura without headache (also see this article on ocular migraine without headache).  See this Mayo Clinic entry on ocular migraine.

If you've been diagnosed with this type of migraine, your doctor may be talking about other types of headache that include visual disturbances.  It would be helpful to get another opinion based on the well known classifications from the International Headache Society.

Also see: Is there an ocular migraine stroke connection?


Retinal migraine is known for its one-eye, severe disturbances.  As a matter of fact, it often involves partial or total blindness.  Fortunately, the symptoms are temporary, usually lasting less than an hour.  The headache arrives either during the visual problems, or else up to an hour later.  The headache may last only a few hours or up to 3 days.  Like more common migraine types, the headache is usually one-sided, pulsing, and is often accompanied by nausea or a sensitivity to light or sound.  Read more about migraine symptoms here.

Ocular migraines


As with other manifestations of migraine disease, the cause of retinal migraine is not fully understood.  Staff at the Mayo Clinic wrote the following on the 19th of May 2005: The cause of ocular migraines isn't clearly understood.  But they're thought to be due to abnormal stimulation of nerve cells (neurons) at the back of the brain.  We know that migraine relates to neurological activity affecting blood vessels, but we're still learning how it all works.  Read more about the cause of migraine here.

Treatment and cautions

Often, when the symptoms are rare for you, treatment may not be prescribed.  The problem is only temporary.  However, if the pain is intense your doctor may prescribe painkillers.  To deal with the visual symptoms, a fast working medication may be prescribed (see abortive meds here).  For the visual disturbances, triptan drugs are usually not prescribed (because (a) they may not be quick enough, and (b) if a headache strikes later, you may want to take a triptan at that point).

Read more about ocular migraine at WebMD.

Be aware that symptoms like these could be a sign of a serious problem besides migraine itself.  Be sure to check with your doctor to get a proper diagnosis.  For example, Drs William B Young and Stephen B Silberstein point out in Migraine and Other Headaches that blindness can be a symptom of dissection, the rupturing of the lining of a blood vessel, as well as migraine.

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