Think migraine and most people think head pain. But you can suffer a migraine involving your eyes and not necessarily your head — known as an ocular or visual migraine. And, according to the American Migraine Foundation, there are two types: migraines with aura and retinal migraines.
With migraines with aura, you may see spots, circles, zigzags or crescent shapes or flashes of light that last from as few as five minutes to as long as an hour, according to the National Headache Foundation. Typically, you see the spots and shapes in both eyes, says the Mayo Clinic. These symptoms could be a sign that a migraine headache is on its way, or not. Some people never get a headache afterwards, notes Brigham & Women's Hospital.
Between 15 and 20 percent of migraine sufferers experience auras, according to the Cleveland Clinic. Although these disturbances can be unsettling and interfere with the ability to concentrate on what you're doing, they are not usually serious, Mayo Clinic says.
A retinal migraine is rare, but can be serious. With this type of migraine, the most likely symptom is not being able to see through one eye, diminishing your vision for a short time, followed by a headache. Because a loss of vision also may be something else serious, be sure you seek immediate attention from an eye specialist or a neurologist to diagnose the cause and prescribe the appropriate treatment, the Mayo Clinic states.
How to Get Rid of Migraine With Aura
"You treat ocular migraines similar to how you treat regular migraines," says Danielle Wilhour, MD, assistant professor of neurology in the headache and neurohospitalist division at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus. "You can take a variety of medication to help get rid of the symptoms, including triptans, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) and acetaminophen." Triptans, which block pain paths in the brain, require a prescription.
It's most effective if you take your medication as soon as you start having visual symptoms, advises Steven Lin, DO, a neurologist with Healthcare Associates in Medicine in Staten Island, N.Y.
Self-care steps can also be part of the plan to get rid of an ocular migraine faster:
Rest your eyes. Avoid bright light by going indoors if you're outside on a sunny day or stepping away from your computer screen. Move to a room where the light isn't harsh and close your eyes, the American Migraine Foundation recommends. A cool cloth to the back of your neck or over your eyes or forehead also might bring some relief.
Eat something. Unless it's one of your triggers, a piece of chocolate might help because of its caffeine.
Take a drink. It's important to stay hydrated, so drink up — preferably water.
Relax. Find what relieves stress for you and do it. For some people, formal relaxation training, such as biofeedback or cognitive behavioral therapy, is effective.
Ask your doctor about anti-nausea medication. Some people who experience migraine with aura also feel nauseous. If you do, drugs like chlorpromazine (Thorazine), metoclopramide (Reglan) or prochlorperazine (Compro) might help you feel better faster, Mayo Clinic points out.
An Ounce of Prevention
You can try to prevent migraine with aura the same ways you would any migraine. Try these steps as suggested by the Mayo Clinic:
Discover your triggers. By keeping a journal, you can see what's likely to trigger your migraines. Once you know your triggers, you can work to avoid them as much as possible. Common migraine triggers include alcohol, citrus fruits and packaged and processed foods with chemicals, such as MSG and nitrates in hot dogs and deli meats.
Get quality sleep. Don't sleep too long or too little. Stick to the same bedtime and morning routine, even on weekends.
Eat according to the clock. Having a regular eating routine will help you avoid missing meals, a trigger for some people.
Take migraine-prevention medications. There are many new and effective drugs as well as medications used for other conditions that help prevent migraines. These range from biologics and Botox to high blood pressure, antidepressant and anti-seizure medications. Talk to your doctor about what's best for you based on the frequency of your visual migraines.
Is This an Emergency?
- Brigham and Women’s Hospital: “Patient’s Guide to Visual Migraine”
- American Headache Society: “Aura with Headache”
- American Migraine Foundation: “Understanding Ocular Migraine”
- Mayo Clinic: “Ocular Migraine: When to Seek Help”
- Mayo Clinic: “Migraine with Aura: Diagnosis & Treatment”
- American Migraine Foundation: “Migraine and Aura”
- American Migraine Foundation: “Common Migraine Triggers”
- Cleveland Clinic: “Migraines”
- National Headache Foundation: "Aura"