Kaleidoscope vision is a symptom of migraine. The brain creates a visual illusion of fractured or bright colors, similar to those a person might see through a kaleidoscope.

Migraine can affect vision in many ways. Some people see sparkling lights or blind spots, while others experience kaleidoscope vision.

Sensory disturbances, or auras, affect around 20% of people with migraine. These disturbances usually last around 20 minutes, but they can last from as little as 5 minutes up to 1 hour.

People may also experience kaleidoscope vision due to brain damage or a stroke.

This article discusses the causes of kaleidoscope vision, how to get rid of it, and when to see a doctor.

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When a person has kaleidoscope vision, their brain creates fractured or brightly colored images similar to those a person might see when they look through a kaleidoscope.

This visual symptom can occur in one or both eyes but might affect only a small portion of the visual field.

Kaleidoscope vision is just one type of aura. Auras occur in response to a sudden increase in neuronal activity. In most cases, auras are due to migraine.

Visual auras can occur with or without headache pain and can affect one or both eyes.

Auras can also affect a person’s sense of smell, touch, and hearing.

There are three types of visual aura:

  • Positive aura: This occurs when a person sees something that is not actually there. This will usually be dark zig-zag lines, dots, or flashing bulbs.
  • Negative aura: This occurs when a person experiences partial or total vision loss. They may have blind spots, tunnel vision, or total loss of vision in one or both eyes.
  • Altered aura: This neither adds nor subtracts from a person’s vision. Instead, it changes the way a person views the world around them. People who have altered auras might see things move in waves, or objects might appear to them as abnormally large or small.

Kaleidoscope vision is a type of altered visual aura.

Most often, migraine causes kaleidoscope vision. However, more serious causes can also bring on this symptom, such as retinal migraine or a stroke, as the following sections discuss.

Ocular migraine

Migraine episodes with visual symptoms are called visual, or ocular, migraines.

Migraine and severe headaches affect approximately 1 in 6 adults in the United States. Around 20% of people with migraine experience some type of aura.

Current scientific evidence suggests that ocular migraine occurs due to structural abnormalities in the visual cortex.

A 2015 study examined the MRI data of people who have one-sided ocular migraine. According to the authors, the affected and unaffected sides of the brain showed noticeable differences in the thickness of certain areas of the cortex, or gray matter.

The authors suggest that this structural difference may make the visual cortex on the affected side significantly more sensitive to neuronal activity.

Retinal migraine

Retinal migraine may produce symptoms similar to those of ocular migraine, but these are two distinct conditions.

Unlike ocular migraine, retinal migraine occurs in response to reduced blood flow to the eye. Retinal migraine causes visual aura symptoms in one eye only.

Visual aura symptoms associated with retinal migraine include:

  • a blind spot that may increase in size
  • flashing lights
  • temporary blindness in one eye

Auras can last 5–60 minutes, after which people may experience throbbing headache pain.

Transient ischemic attack or stroke

Stroke occurs when something interrupts or blocks the blood supply to the brain. Potential causes of stroke include:

  • blood clots
  • plaque or fatty deposits
  • damaged or ruptured blood vessels

A transient ischemic attack (TIA), or “mini-stroke,” results from a temporary blockage. This type of stroke lasts only a few minutes, and the symptoms usually disappear within an hour. That said, they can last up to 24 hours.

A TIA can indicate a high chance of having a stroke in the future, so it is important that people inform their doctors if they experience any of the following TIA symptoms:

  • numbness or tingling on one side of the body
  • confusion
  • difficulty speaking
  • loss of balance
  • dizziness

If a person suspects a stroke, they should call the emergency services or visit the hospital right away. Learn more about the signs of a stroke and the signs of a TIA here.

Patient speaking to her GP
A person should speak to a healthcare professional if their headache symptoms worsen over a few days.

The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke recommend that people seek immediate medical attention if they experience a sudden, severe headache accompanied by any of the following symptoms:

  • stiff neck
  • fever
  • nausea or vomiting
  • confusion
  • vision impairment, such as blurred or double vision
  • loss of sensation or weakness in any part of the body
  • convulsions
  • shortness of breath

People may want to consider speaking with their doctor if their headache symptoms worsen over several days.

Children and adults over the age of 50 should seek immediate medical attention if they have persistent, recurring headaches.

Currently, no cure exists for migraine.

Kaleidoscope vision, along with any other migraine symptoms, will typically go away on their own within an hour. People can take medications that relieve painful symptoms and prevent migraine episodes from developing in the first place.

People who experience aura often find relief from sitting or lying down in a dark, quiet room.

A drug called erenumab (Aimovig) targets calcitonin receptors to effectively prevent migraine episodes. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have approved its use in adults only.

People can discuss treatment options with their doctor. Medications that help treat migraine include:

Massaging the scalp and applying a damp cloth to the forehead may help alleviate migraine pain.

Having kaleidoscope vision can be frightening, but this symptom will typically pass in a few minutes. People should relax and wait for their vision to return to normal before moving around, driving, or operating machinery.

Kaleidoscope vision makes the objects in a person’s field of vision appear fractured or broken. Ocular migraine often causes kaleidoscope vision, but the symptom can also indicate stroke.

People with migraine may experience visual, auditory, or physical symptoms before the head pain starts. These symptoms are called auras.

No cure exists for migraine or auras. However, people can take some preventative measures if they believe a migraine is coming on:

  • sitting or lying down in a dark, quiet room
  • taking OTC pain relievers or beta-blockers
  • massaging the scalp
  • applying a damp compress to the forehead

A person can also speak to a doctor for individualized support. People should seek emergency medical attention for a suspected stroke or mini-stroke.

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