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Ocular Migraines

January 9th, 2010

When I was a kid, I accidentally burned the retina in my right eye. It left a small but permanent scar on the retina, right near the center of my vision; thanks to the magic of the brain, however, my mind edits it out, making it invisible except when I close my left eye. Think of it as similar to the blind spot everyone has–same principle. Still, it does pop up when floaters or whatever obscure the vision in my left eye, and leaves me worried that if anything happens to the vision in my left eye permanently, it could seriously impair my ability to read.

When I was in high school, though, I got a huge scare: suddenly, the blind spot was in both eyes. That alone made me worry like hell. After a few minutes, I began to panic as the blind spot started to grow bigger.

I excused myself from class and called home. As I waited for my mom to pick me up, the blind spot just kept getting bigger and bigger. It went from being a spot to becoming a very large spot, a round blotch off-center to the left. It was affecting both eyes equally. I thoroughly believed that I was going blind on the spot. After my mom got me and we were driving home, however, something greatly encouraging happened: as the blind area grew, I regained vision in the center of the spot. From that point, the blind area took the form of a ring, which slowly began to move toward to edge of my vision. Before an hour had passed, it had completely fled my field of view, and my vision was normal again.

That was my first ocular migraine, also called a “scintillating scotoma.” A form of migraine headache, it mercifully does not come with the pain usually associated with such an attack. I get these periodically, but not too often–maybe once every 3-5 years. They last about 30-45 minutes, and thankfully are benign. Though they scare the crap out of you the first time, they leave no damage–it is happening in the brain, not the retina, ergo the fact that it affects vision in both eyes (strangely, that is a reassuring symptom, when you know what’s going on). After the first few times, the visual aura was less a ring and more of a semicircle, always arcing and growing to the left.

I blog on this because it happened again today, as Sachi and I took the train to meet with Maruko and her family. As usual, it begins as a small distortion near the center of vision, and is hard to discern; I usually mistake it for the kind of distortion one might suffer with an afterimage of a very bright point of light. For the first five or ten minutes, it’s indistinct enough to make it hard to recognize as a migraine, and so I have to worry through that until I can see that the distortion is both growing and is truly in both eyes; after that, I relax and wait for it to take its course.

There’s no easy way to represent this, but here’s an attempt. Keep in mind that it’s moving; the blind area is kind of dark, kind of sparkling–I get similar images when I squeeze my eyes shut real hard for a bit, I don’t know if you get the same thing. This is what it looks like late in the event, not too long before it moves out of the field of vision.


Anyone else get these? From what I read, they’re not too common, especially the kind that comes without any pain.

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  1. Leszek Cyfer
    January 10th, 2010 at 01:45 | #1

    Amazing, Louis. I get the sparks when pressing eye through eyelid, but the occular migraine I’ve heard of for the first time.

    If you have time and occasion, read Meir Schneider “My vision and my life” – a fascinating autobiography of a boy that was born blind, his eyes massacred by early eye surgery, but who through inventive exercises regained his vision. He teaches sth called Eye Yoga. His story gave me strange peace of mind about worries of losing sight – your reaction may be similar :)

  2. January 10th, 2010 at 09:57 | #2

    I have had two occular migraines. Once a few years ago and again about a month ago. It starts like I was blinded by a camera flash or sun glint and worsens. After a while, it looks like shimmering lights moving about similar to an old time movie marquee with lit lights “racing” around the perimeter. The first time, I went to my eye doctor worried. I figured it was neurological and that scared me. I thought I was having a stroke in the vision areas of my brain. The second time I just rested and waited it to subside.

    I have never had a true migraine, but I have heard that the aura seen by some migraine sufferers before the headache begins is identical to what we have seen. I’m thankful I don’t experience the pain of migraines.

  3. bb
    January 12th, 2010 at 04:57 | #3

    I’ve been getting these off and on since high school (I’m 52 now) — maybe half a dozen per year or so. I never worried about them until 15 years ago, when my doctor finally explained to me that they were likely migraines, which had two parts. First the blood to the vision part of the brain gets cut off for a while, and thus you see those pulsating things in your eye. Then, when bloodflow is restored, it comes rushing in and you get the pounding headache. However that explanation doesn’t quite match my symptoms, since this is all supposed to take place over the course of a few minutes. Like you, I also don’t get a headache, at least not the classic kind. Usually the next day I’ll have what I can best liken to a hangover. If I lean over, I’ll feel that ‘fragile head’ feeling you get from a hangover. That fact that it is hours later doesn’t seem to fit the migraine description.

    I often associate the pulsations with dehydration, because it happened several times during athletic endeavors when I was sweating and losing fluid. If I start to see a little pulsation now, I’ll rush to drink a bunch of water. I’ve nipped several episodes in the bud that way. Otherwise, if I’m driving, the pulsation will eventually move to the center of my eye and I can’t see directly forward and must pull over. Worse, I’m golfing and I can’t see the ball!

  4. January 15th, 2010 at 06:43 | #4

    I got that at one point and it freaked me out. I was probobly 16 at the time and suddenly, my vision started shimmering in my left field of vision. The shimmering started to spread. I immediately called my parents and they told me it was a type of side-effect of a headache. It started to subside five minutes later.

  5. January 15th, 2010 at 12:25 | #5

    I get them several times a year. First couple sure were freaky. Mine are actually related at least to some extent to eye strain. I can reliably make it go away by sitting with my eyes closed for 10-15 minutes. Unfortunately my job involves staring at a monitor all day…

  6. January 19th, 2010 at 16:41 | #6

    I am glad I came across this article. I use to have the ‘dark spot in vision’ too. Happened to me a couple of times. I wasn’t sure what to make of it.

    I also suffer migraines very frequently but unlike yours, mine hurts. A lot. To the point it feels like a really bad toothache where the pain spreads to the left side of my forehead.

    I didn’t know these were linked.

  7. Doug
    February 9th, 2010 at 04:24 | #7

    At the age of 53, I now experience ocular migraines regularly (more than 20 episodes per year). I began experiencing them near the age of 20; at first only once or twice a year. The frequency increased gradually over time so it seems to get worse as we get older. I have met several others close to me who experience OCs and at least one person who experiences the same but then it evolve into a painful migrain. Thankfully, I experience no pain; just the feeling of being tired (much like I feel after I have been in a dentist’s chair for an hour or more). My Daughter experienced her first one at the age of 21. The one thing I have been during is tracking my OCs on a spreadsheet. I am hoping I can narrow down what factors might cause an OC to start. So far, though, I have not found anything obvious in terms of diet, tiredness or something of a temporal importance (i.e. time of the day or an acticvity I was doing). My OCs are almost always the same; most often starting in the lower right quadrant of my vision, expanding in an arch shape of colorful, shimmering geometric shapes and then dissipating to the upper right extend of my vision. They last 35 to 40 minutes. On a few occasions they have ended in a shorter time. On at least one day I had two episodes. They happen any time of the day from early morning hours (5am when I am awake) to late in the evening. SO basically it is all over the map. I would be nice if there was a place where we could collectively document our OCs and see how similar or different they are and if there are any trends that might emerge from the data. Cheers

  8. Daniel
    February 27th, 2010 at 11:52 | #8

    I get the same and I’m 14. I get the blind shiny in both eyes and it usually get them to the right side on my right eye. They are very annoying and every time i get one I usually lie down and rest for an hour. The first time I got really scared. Straight after i get a Thumping headache of migraine.

  9. Amy
    May 29th, 2010 at 02:33 | #9

    WOW. I had the EXACT same thing happen to me about 2 weeks ago. Scared the living daylights out of me! I thought I was like having some sort of seizure or something. I started having an anxiety attack from it, so much that my heart was racing and I just couldn’t get a grip on myself. It went away after about 10-15 minutes, but it scared me! good to know that this is not as unusual, or unheard of, as I had thought!

  10. K
    July 9th, 2010 at 04:30 | #10

    I also get these ocular migraines, without pain, about once every 3 months. At first, I thought it was caused by saturated fat or cholesterol, as I would get them sometimes after eating fast food. But after looking at the actual nutrients I was eating, this proved to not be true. After about 2 years though, I think I may have stumbled on the trigger for me as of 2 days ago, and it’s dehydration (the salt in the fast food could definitely irritate dehyrdration!). These episodes happen more frequently in the morning, when I am most dehydrated. Although, they are not limited to the morning. But dehydration is the only consistency I have been able to find. I will try to post back sometime in the next year to let you know if this works.

  11. Jen
    July 29th, 2010 at 23:45 | #11

    Glad to read these posts! I had my first one of these this morning. When I stood up I started experiencing a dark, sparkling region in my upper left field of vision. It reminded me a little of the migraines I had as an adolescent (I am 34 now). It lasted about 15 minutes. I was very nervous but reading through these posts, it seems like it happens to lots of people.

  12. Doug
    August 3rd, 2010 at 05:49 | #12

    K’s mention of dehydration as a possible cause or contributing factor is worth looking at. I am not one to hydrate regularly except for coffee throughout the day. Since my last post in Feb., 2010 I have had my regular 2 to 3 OMs per month. What has changed is that some episodes seem to start but have stopped after a few minutes; they never progressed to the full 30 to 40 min. Again, no explanation for this.

  13. Leopoldo Sanczyk
    October 31st, 2010 at 11:12 | #13

    Wow! I have the same exact thing! I live in Argentina, and several doctors here couldn’t explain my problem or give it a name. I’m glad to find this post!
    PS1: I believe that the dehydratation is related, because these Optical Migraines occurs me after high physic activity.
    PS2: Try close your eyes and ask a friend if they are closed. When I have this, I believe they are closed, but are actually flashing.

  14. Richard St.Clair
    December 6th, 2010 at 23:45 | #14

    I am 52 years old and have suffered from migraines since I was about 7- although they were much worse from age 7 to 26 or so. I now have infrequent semi-migraines most often brought on by extreme weather changes. Your picture illustrates EXACTLY what I was trying to draw for my eye doctor. Even the opening in the semi circle is in the same place. I experienced my first scintillating scotoma during a weather induced semi-migraine about a month ago, and went to my doctor immediately- afraid that I was suffering a stroke or a detached retina. The circle lasted about 30 minutes but was gone by the time I got to the office. Mine was completely in my left eye, as are all my migraines. As many of the other posts have stated this experience is completely terrifying for the uninitiated- I had never heard of scintillating scotoma until that day. I am also fascinated by the mention of dehydration by many of the posters- I found I was able to mostly control my migraines by chugging a large glass of water as soon as I find one coming on- as a kid my mother could sometimes stave them off by giving me an aspirin and a glass of water- but as an adult I am positive it was the water that often stopped them, not the aspirin!

  15. Luis
    December 7th, 2010 at 00:07 | #15

    Just like Eyelid Twitching, this is one of those things that happens and nobody knows exactly why, nor is there any universal cure that works every time. I’ll try the water solution, though.

    I’m glad many find the illustration helpful, as it’s very hard to get down right. It’s always in motion, and more than anything else is a distortion of what is seen, the overlay being more or less the kind of changing, shifting patterns one often sees when one closes one’s eyes.

    My father and I both, coincidentally, started suffering several of these early this year. Whereas it used to be just once every 2-3 years, I was suddenly experiencing them once every few weeks. In January and February, I got seven, then another three in may & June, then one in November. My father guessed that it was caffeine intake, though I saw no change when I swore off caffeine from mid-January, and saw no recurrence when I went back on caffeine later.

    What I did notice was that I was getting them regularly in morning hours, and eventually found that one common precipitating factor was a temperature change, often when I took showers in the winter.

    Also of note is that, for me, they usually start left of center, then expand outward to the left–though some of them have been to the right. I don’t know what causes either.

    As for it happening in one eye only, I did not know that was possible; the fact that it happens in both eyes is, for me, the point that reassures me it is a migraine and not a problem with either eye.

  16. Doug
    December 10th, 2010 at 08:20 | #16

    In reviewing some of the most recent posts, I can add that I too have talked about this condition with both my physician and my eye doctor. Both seem to be informed about the condition and both explained there is no known treatment or trigger. Except for those who have an OM that leads to a painful migrain (and can see their doctor about medication), my medical people tell me it is nothing to worry about. The only real impact in my case is I am unable to do much work while experiencing an OM – it just means I get to rest my eyes if one happens at work (mostly desk work in front of a computer). If your work involves flying (i.e a pilot), driving or operating equipment then the impact on ones job might be more significant. For those of you who have experienced one for the first time, don’t worry they are a minor inconvenience.
    I am still not convinced the trigger is a hydration issue for me but will keep it in mind the next time one occurs (which is due any time soon). I live in the Canadian north and experience dramatic shifts in weather, barametric pressure and temperature (this past week we had a 30 degree celcius shift from very cold to above freezing in a matter of 12 hours and it did not trigger a OM.
    I am beginning to think I need to think outside the box and look at other external triggers…what exactly, not sure yet. Cheers.

  17. Anonymous
    February 6th, 2011 at 05:26 | #17

    That picture is exactly what my visual disturbance looks like! It is very scary to have and I thank you for posting it. At least I don’t feel all alone with this weird symptom. I also get shakiness and breathlessness when it occurs and for some time after the vision clears up.

  18. Joe
    April 6th, 2011 at 10:29 | #18

    I have had these as well. I do an intense cardio workout at the gym a few times a week. About an hour after the workout I will start to get this small ..kind of rainbow type letter C ..like your pic above in the center of my vision. Over the next 45min to an hour or so..the letter c will grow and grow..until its on the outer portion of my vision..in the peripheral. Then boom, its gone. At first maybe I thought it was because I have high BP and maybe I was doing damage to my eye somehow with my intense workouts. Going to run it by my DR. next time I see him..but from what I read online it doesnt seem to serious. But the first time it happened I really freaked out.

  19. JD
    October 27th, 2011 at 03:53 | #19

    I get the same thing. No real one thing triggers them. Just seem to happen randomly. Sometimes I can tell before that it is about to happen, other times no.

    The C shape is the best thing I can use to describe how it starts out in a small area and then expands. It blanks out part of my vision completely but if I move my head or eye and open my eye really wide, it goes away for that time until I return my focus or let my eye relax.

    Sometimes it happens in one eye (usually my left) and stays there. Sometimes it will start in the left eye and then travel across my field of vision to my right eye, and then will eventually go away.

    It’s a bit scary at first if you have no idea what it is, but after it goes away, and your sight returns you relax. Never scared me enough to worry over it or call a doctor.

    The image you have posted is about the most perfect example of what I see — only I add that it is moving, and shimmering and looks like the pictures you see of the inside of a diamond, magnified times a bazillion.

    And this image on Wiki is very similar in showing what the shimmer looks like.

    Just thought I would share my experience with you and others who might Google this phenomena and land on your blog.

    Best of luck in life to you too!

  20. Doug
    November 22nd, 2011 at 03:05 | #20

    THe Wiki link is a good representation of the affect from ocular migraines. Thanks to JD for posting it. In past years I have experienced several per year (as many as 20 times/year) but the past three to four months there have no episodes. I still drink a great deal of coffee each day, I live an active life style…so nothing has changed in the way I do things. THey started in my late teens or early 20s, have definitly increased in frequency in my mid 40s but now at nearly 55 the frequency seems to be dropping off. Cheers,

  21. Hazel
    December 19th, 2011 at 11:14 | #21

    I have just had my first ocular migraine. I have been a migraine sufferer for 30 years and this evening I experience my first ocular migraine which frightened me so much, I had no idea what was happening and thought I was going to have to go to hospital. After the initial panic it very slowly went away and I decided to investigate .. as I now can’t sleep. I’m so reassured to find this website and to know I’m not alone and that nothing terrible is happening as i feared might be the case!

  22. George Livanos
    January 4th, 2012 at 01:32 | #22

    You have described excatly what i have “occular migrain” i have only totally lost my vision once but about 2 times a month i get these black rings covering my vision.

  23. joe richards
    July 10th, 2012 at 20:45 | #23

    i have had these symptoms from the age of 15 and i am now 68. they have all followed along the same lines as you all describe on here but in my case four episodes in the last ten years have resulted in me passing out and having a fit after the usual twenty minuets or so of flashing zig- zag lights, doctors here in the uk do not seem to care or come up with any explinations.

  24. Mike Booker
    September 4th, 2012 at 01:01 | #24

    Many thanks for this post, especially the picture. I am just back from the doctor, who has checked my blood pressure and sent me for an eye test. This is exactly what I have experienced. Only 4 times in 25 years (I’m now 55), usually at rest and once on holiday relaxing, so no stress trigger. I feel a bit sick after, but otherwise no pain or other migraine symptoms.

  25. Nikki Prophet
    January 12th, 2013 at 02:02 | #25

    I am glad I found this post. I get these and they are exactly as you describe. It was my eye Dr. who was finally able to tell me a name for this. I am usually queasy at the first “flash” then that goes away and I spend the next 20-60 minutes looking at this arc that looks very similar to your image, but a little brighter. If I get a headache at all it is pretty mild but I am very tired afterward and I get a ringing in the ears that stays at least as long as the visual interference. It’s really odd as I may not get one for a year and then I’ll get 3 in a week. I’ve been having them since I was a kid; I’m 42 now. It’s nice to know I’m not the only one.

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