The International Classification of Headache Disorders (ICHD) states that a retinal migraine is repeated attacks of visual disturbances in one eye. These disturbances include flashing or sparkling lights, partial vision loss, or blindness.

A 2021 article notes that a headache will also occur at the same time or within an hour of the vision problems. The ICHD also states that the symptoms can last for 5–60 minutes.

Specific data on the prevalence of retinal migraine does not exist, but experts consider it a rare version of migraine.

This article looks at the causes and symptoms of retinal migraine. It also examines the treatment and prevention options available.

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A retinal migraine and an ocular migraine are the same condition. A doctor may refer to a retinal migraine as an ocular migraine.

The exact cause of retinal migraine remains unclear.

According to some experts, narrowing of the arteries or veins in the eye may be the cause. Another possible theory is that genetics or family history of retinal migraine can play a role in its occurrence.

People who experience retinal migraine may have similar triggers to those who experience migraine with aura. Some common triggers can include:

  • stress
  • hypertension
  • bending over
  • smoking
  • hormonal contraceptive pills
  • exercise
  • low blood sugar
  • high altitude
  • dehydration
  • excessive heat

Some people have a higher risk of experiencing retinal migraine than others, including people who:

Retinal migraine involves repeated episodes of visual disturbances, or aura, that affect one eye.

The characteristics of an aura may include:

  • flashing, sparkling, or twinkling lights
  • a blind spot or partial loss of vision
  • temporary blindness

The International Headache Society states that the aura may spread gradually over 5 minutes or more and last between 5–60 minutes.

Within 60 minutes of the visual symptoms starting, a migraine headache may begin.

A migraine headache may:

  • be pulsing or throbbing
  • be moderate to severe in pain intensity
  • worsen with activities, such as walking or climbing stairs

A migraine headache may also cause:

  • nausea and vomiting
  • increased sensitivity to light
  • increased intolerance to sound

Diagnosis of retinal migraine does not involve any diagnostic tests. Instead, doctors typically follow the ICHD-3 criteria guidelines to diagnose a person with the condition.

Diagnostic criteria for retinal migraine include the following:

  • A person must fit the criteria for having attacks consistent with migraine with aura.
  • The aura must:
    • occur only in one eye with or without noticeable symptoms such as blindness or visual disturbances
    • have at least two of the following symptoms:
      • spread gradually for 5 or more minutes
      • a headache that starts within 60 minutes
      • symptoms that last between 5–60 minutes
  • There is no other diagnosis that can better explain the symptoms.

In addition to reviewing a person’s symptoms, a doctor will likely talk about the individual’s personal or family history of migraine.

In some cases, a specialist doctor might need to check that the symptoms are not due to a serious eye disease or stroke.

Some people who have visual disturbances might have hemianopia or hemianopsia. Hemianopia is the loss of vision in half the visual field, which will occur on the same side of both eyes. It often develops as a result of a stroke or traumatic brain injury.

The United Kingdom’s National Health Service (NHS) notes that treatment usually involves pain relief medications and trying to avoid triggers.

The medication a doctor prescribes to treat retinal migraine may depend on a person’s age and how frequently they experience retinal migraine.

The American Migraine Foundation notes that if the attacks are not frequent, the treatment will be the same as for other types of migraine.

Medications might include nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as aspirin or ibuprofen to relieve pain and inflammation. Antinausea medications can also help prevent nausea and vomiting.

A doctor will not prescribe triptans and ergotamines for a retinal migraine, although they may prescribe these to treat or help prevent other types of migraine.

The 2021 article states that permanent vision loss can be a complication of retinal migraine. However, this is rare.

People who experience visual disturbances due to retinal migraine may need to visit an ophthalmologist to check for eye damage or other underlying problems.

Prevention of retinal migraine is similar to prevention of regular migraine. It can include a combination of medication and lifestyle changes.

Some preventive measures a person can take include:

  • taking all preventive medication as prescribed
  • avoiding known triggers, including foods, stress, and environmental factors
  • keeping a headache journal to help track and identify additional triggers

Preventive medications may include:

  • beta-blockers to relax blood vessels in the brain
  • anticonvulsants to help prevent a migraine
  • tricyclic antidepressants to help prevent migraine

People could also make lifestyle changes, such as:

  • avoiding alcohol
  • avoiding caffeine
  • managing high blood pressure
  • quitting smoking
  • discontinuing any oral contraceptives

A retinal migraine is a benign condition, and symptoms typically last less than 60 minutes.

Although vision loss is a potential complication, it is rare. Anyone who has vision loss with migraine should seek medical help to check that there is not a more severe underlying problem.

Retinal migraine, sometimes referred to as an ocular migraine, causes visual disturbance in one eye with a migraine headache following within an hour. A person may experience partial vision loss and flickering or flashing lights.

The exact cause is still unknown.

Treatment typically involves pain medication to treat the migraine headache. A person should also try to avoid triggers to help prevent migraine from occurring.

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