What is a Retinal Migraine?

A Rare Type of Migraine

A retinal migraine headache.
A retinal migraine headache. Eric Audras/Getty Images

A retinal migraine isn't just a headache. In fact, if you've ever experienced one, you know that retinal migraine symptoms can be frightening.

What Are Retinal Migraines?

A retinal migraine is a rare type of migraine headache that affects the eyes and vision. You may have also heard it referred to as an ocular migraine.

The visual changes occur in one eye and include blindness, scotoma (blind spot), and flashing lights or sparks (scintillation).

These visual changes are either accompanied or followed by a migraine headache, and they reverse completely between attacks. These visual changes typically come on within 5 or more minutes and can last up to an hour, but most last between 5 and 20 minutes. They can occur several times throughout a day.

Sometimes a retinal migraine is confused with a migraine aura. But a migraine aura affects both eyes. In retinal migraines, only one eye is affected.

How are Retinal Migraines Diagnosed?

Before a diagnosis of retinal migraine can be made, a doctor needs to rule out other conditions, like stroke, optic neuritis, or giant cell arteritis. Often, consultation with a neurologist and ophthalmologist is required.

Are Retinal Migraines Worrisome?

While the visual loss associated with retinal migraine is by definition reversible, some experts believe that irreversible vision loss may eventually occur, and there are reported cases.

This is why some doctors prescribe a migraine preventive medication for retinal migraines, especially one that reduces blood pressure, like a calcium-channel blocker or beta blocker.

In addition, while there are no official guidelines, some neurologists will prescribe daily aspirin therapy to prevent migraine infarction (stroke) and permanent vision loss in the affected eye.

Bottom Line

You should call your health care provider any time you experience new symptoms or when your headache symptoms change significantly. You should seek emergent medical attention if you develop sudden vision loss, as other serious health conditions, like stroke, need to be ruled out before a diagnose of retinal migraine is made.

Sources:

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Fiore, D.C., Pasternak, A.V., & Radwan, R.M. Pain in the quiet (not red) eye. Am Fam Physician. 2010 Jul 1;82(1):69-73.

Gan, K.D., Mouradian, M.S., Weis, E., & Lewis, J.R. Transient monocular visual loss and retinal migraine. CMAJ. 2005 Dec 6; 173(12): 1441–42.

Grosberg, B.M., Solomon, S., Friedman, D.I., & Lipton, R.B. Retianl migraine reappraised. Cephalalgia. 2006 Nov;26(11):1275-86.

Hill, D.L., Daroff, R.B., Ducros, A., Newman, N.J., & Biousse, V. Most cases labeled as "retinal migraine" are not migraine. J Neuroophthalmol. 2007 Mar;27(1):3-8.

Headache Classification Committee of the International Headache Society. "The International Classification of Headache Disorders: 3rd Edition (beta version)". Cephalalgia 2013;33(9):629-808.

DISCLAIMER: The information in this site is for educational purposes only. It should not be used as a substitute for personal care by a licensed physician. Please see your doctor for diagnosis and treatment of any concerning symptoms or medical condition.

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