woman holding her head in pain.

There’s nothing like it–the excruciating, throbbing pain in your head that can only be a migraine. If you suffer from migraines, you may have noticed some visual disturbances in addition to your headache. Most likely what you have experienced is a migraine with aura accounting for approximately 20% of all migraines. There is also another less common type of migraine with visual disturbance called an ocular migraine affecting only about one out of every 200 people who have migraines. These two types of headaches are very similar making it very confusing to tell which is which. Read on to learn the distinctions between the two.

What are the symptoms for migraine with aura and ocular migraine?

The symptoms of the two conditions are almost the same except for a few telltale signs. The main difference is a migraine with aura will affect both eyes while an ocular migraine affects only one. Both have visual disturbances such as:

  • Flashes of light

  • Zigzagging patterns

  • Blind sponts

  • Shimmering, colored, or flickering lights

  • Floating lines

The visual disturbances tend to go away before the headache begins for the migraine with aura but can last longer for the ocular headache. Also, the headache, which can also be accompanied by symptoms of nausea and severe light sensitivity, tends to be right behind the affected eye of an ocular migraine but can be more spread out for a migraine with aura.

What are the causes?

The underlying cause for migraines of all kinds have not been definitively established. Many researchers believe the symptoms are caused by a reduction in blood-flow to the brain which is possibly caused by a spasm in the blood vessels. The source of the visual disturbances is different for the two types of headaches. In migraine with aura, the occipital cortex of the brain located at the base of the skull is the source. For ocular migraines, the retina, or specifically the retinal blood vessels, is the source. Because the source of the problem for a migraine with aura is the brain, not the eyes, you would still be able to see the disturbance if you cover your eyes. Not so with an ocular migraine.

What to do?

The first thing to do about both kinds of migraines is to seek medical help, especially if you’re experiencing visual problems in just one eye which could mean a different, much more serious medical problem such as stroke or retinal detachment.

There are some known triggers for migraines that if avoided could help keep them from happening: stress, smoking, dehydration, red wine, change in barometric pressure and lack of sleep are just a few. The visual disturbances are temporary and harmless to the eye. However, they can interfere with regular daily activities, so best to take good care of yourself until the symptoms pass and get some medical help to keep them from coming back.

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