Understanding Visual Migraines

If you haven’t had one before you may not know what a visual migraine is. If you have had one, you are keenly aware of the bizarre and often frightening symptoms associated with them.

Jenni, a technician at Complete Eye Care, is all too familiar with visual migraines. “When I first start to get one it’s like my vision is washed out and faded,” she says. “Then I start to see squiggly lines. Sometimes these are white lines and sometimes they have color. These lines get larger and larger until they block part of my vision.” Usually, Jenni’s symptoms last about 20-30 minutes, which is fairly typical.

Others who experience visual migraines describe flickering around a blind spot, a wavy or zigzag ring of white or colored lights, or other shimmering hallucinations. These auras usually affect both eyes and over a period of about 30 minutes the auras will move across the field of vision and resolve on their own.

Although Jenni doesn’t experience migraine headaches along with the visual migraines, it’s believed that up to 70% of people who suffer from visual migraines have a family history of migraine headaches. In fact, visual migraines tend to have the same causes as migraine headaches. Noticing triggers to visual migraines can be helpful, whether it’s certain types of food, flickering lights, lack of sleep, stress, smoke or perfume. For some, migraine headache medicine can help if visual migraines occur frequently.

While visual migraines are harmless, it’s difficult for people to know for certain if they are having a visual migraine or are experiencing something more serious. It is always best to have a dilated eye exam to determine the cause of these types of symptoms. Retinal detachments, which can damage vision, can have similar symptoms including floaters and flashes of light.

If you experience visual migraines:

  • Keep a journal to document frequency and types of triggers.
  • If you have migraine headaches also, talk to your primary care doctor about migraine medicine.
  • During a visual migraine, stop what you are doing and relax until vision returns to normal.
  • If you experience a visual migraine for the first time, get a dilated eye exam to make sure nothing more serious is happening.