Types of visual migraine, or ocular migraine, include migraine with aura and retinal migraine. Both of these are neurological conditions wherein a person may experience visual disturbances or vision loss alongside a headache.

However, sometimes, a person can develop visual disturbances, such as seeing stars, without getting a headache. This type of migraine is called a silent migraine. Previously, doctors called this an acephalgic migraine.

This article will discuss what visual migraine is, the different types, and their causes, symptoms, and treatment options.

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Visual migraine is typically a headache that presents with changes in vision. However, if a person is experiencing a silent migraine episode, they will not have a headache.

Visual migraine types include migraine with aura and retinal migraine. Sometimes, people use the term visual migraine interchangeably with retinal migraine.

Migraine with aura

According to the American Migraine Foundation, what makes migraine with aura different from retinal migraine is that the visual disturbances can occur in both eyes.

The first visual symptom that a person usually notices is a small, flickering, jagged blind spot. This blind spot may grow bigger, forming a “C” shape on one side of the person’s visual field. How long this lasts can vary within the range of 5–60 minutes.

Symptoms of migraine with aura

Changes in vision may include:

  • blind spots
  • flashes of bright light
  • seeing stars
  • seeing other patterns or shapes

An aura does not just include visual disturbances. A person may also experience:

  • tinnitus, or ringing or other sounds in one or both ears
  • tingling
  • numbness
  • difficulty speaking
  • weakness in the side of the face

Retinal migraine

When a person experiences retinal migraine, they may notice light flashing in front of one of their eyes. Their vision from that eye may also temporarily decrease or vanish altogether.

Retinal migraine is rare, but people as young as 7 years old could experience it. Researchers suggest that retinal migraine may run in families and be more likely to occur in people who experience migraine headaches.

Symptoms of retinal migraine

Although retinal migraine has similar symptoms to migraine with aura, the symptoms may not last as long and tend to only occur in one eye. Typically, the symptoms last for 5–20 minutes, with a person experiencing them a few times per day.

However, retinal migraine symptoms are more intrusive than those of migraine with aura, and, in rare cases, a person may never regain their vision.

As a result, it is vital that people speak with a doctor if they think that they are experiencing retinal migraine so that they can promptly start treatment.

Migraine with aura and retinal migraine share similar causes. However, some are unique to each condition.

Migraine with aura

Researchers suggest that a change in electrical activity in the brain causes migraine with aura to develop. When neurons and glial cells gain a rapid positive charge, or depolarize, this may cause visual disturbances and other aura symptoms.

Triggers of migraine with aura for people who are predisposed to this condition can include:

  • consuming aged cheese and food additives such as nitrates
  • stress
  • anxiety
  • caffeine consumption
  • dehydration
  • storms
  • getting too much or too little sleep
  • menstruation
  • bright lights
  • loud sounds
  • strong odors

Retinal migraine

Changes in the retina cause retinal migraine. A person’s retina is located at the back of their eye.

According to one 2021 article, some researchers believe that when the arteries of the retina narrow, the reduced blood flow causes visual symptoms. Others suggest that an electrical disturbance in the retina is the main cause, similarly to what happens in migraine with aura.

However, more research is necessary to fully understand what causes retinal migraine.

The triggers of retinal migraine are similar to those of migraine with aura. They include:

  • stress
  • smoking
  • bending over
  • high blood pressure
  • dehydration
  • high altitudes
  • heat
  • low blood sugar

Learn more about retinal migraine here.

To relieve a headache or nausea symptoms of visual migraine, a person could take over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers or anti-nausea medication.

Some OTC medications for symptom relief include:

Long-term treatment that prevents visual migraine episodes from returning differs depending on the exact type of migraine a person has.

Migraine with aura

The medications a doctor could prescribe for a person experiencing migraine with aura include:

  • beta-blockers
  • antidepressants
  • anticonvulsants
  • calcium channel blockers

Retinal migraine

Like migraine with aura, calcium channel blockers help prevent retinal migraine from returning. However, a person should not take beta-blockers, triptans, or ergots, as these could increase the risk of vision loss.

Avoiding triggers is another component of migraine management. If a person notices that they experience migraine episodes after drinking coffee or when they are stressed, they should implement lifestyle changes to reduce their exposure to these things, such as reducing their caffeine intake and practicing stress relief techniques.

According to the Stroke Association, a person who experiences migraine with aura is twice as likely to have an ischemic stroke in their lifetime. However, the overall risk is still low. A person is more likely to experience a stroke due to other risk factors, such as high blood pressure and smoking.

One 2017 review suggests that young females who experience migraine with aura may have a higher risk of having a stroke and recommends that they stop smoking to reduce this risk. Also, if they are using birth control, they should ensure that it has low estrogen levels.

Additionally, the researchers behind a 2016 study note that they observed an increased risk of ischemic stroke in those who experience migraine headaches with visual aura. However, they also note that these results were specific to older adults.

If someone is experiencing visual migraine episodes that occur several times per month, they should speak with a doctor. Retinal migraine management is especially important, as a person may lose their vision permanently during an episode.

The symptoms of visual migraine can be similar to those of a stroke or serious eye emergency, such as retinal detachment. A person should contact a doctor promptly if they develop severe vision changes so that they can get an accurate diagnosis.

Long-term treatment plans for migraine management may include taking medications such as calcium channel blockers.

Types of visual migraine include migraine with aura and retinal migraine.

Although symptoms are similar between these types, retinal migraine tends to only affect one eye. The symptoms of migraine with aura are temporary, but a person may experience permanent vision loss with severe retinal migraine.

A person can take OTC pain relievers and anti-nausea medications to alleviate migraine symptoms when they occur. However, if someone is having frequent migraine episodes, they may benefit from preventive treatment options such as calcium channel blockers.