Before we can look at the causes of ocular or optical migraines, we have to look at what they are. Unfortunately, that depends on what doctor you talk to. Ocular or optical migraines are not listed in the highest diagnostic publication for head pains known, the second edition of the International Headache Society International Headache Classification or the IHS-ICHD2.
Ocular migraines are also called eye migraines or retinal migraines, according to the Mayo Clinic. Even though they have numerous names, ocular migraines feature the same main symptom – visual problems. Although called ocular migraines, head pain does not necessarily happen all of the time. But the eye problems do periodically come and go like migraine attacks.
The Mayo Clinic classifies auras as a type of ocular migraine. They are extreme visual disturbances almost to the level of hallucinations. Although classic migraines are defined in the IHS-ICHD2 as “migraines with auras,” only about 20% of people with migraines have this type. Some migrainuers, such as this writer, only experience auras during some migraine attacks and not others. It is unknown what causes migraines, with or without auras.
Any type of migraine can be triggered by certain foods, weather patterns, medications, strong smells or time of the menstrual cycle for women. Each of these triggers is different for each person. Some triggers will only be a problem when combined with others. The best way to discover your own migraine triggers is to see a doctor and to keep a migraine journal. There are many free migraine journal templates on the web.
Some severe eye problems like glaucoma or a detached retina may cause strange optical illusions like floating spots, flashing lights or tunnel vision. In severe glaucoma, head pain usually accompanies the visual problems.
Concussion can also cause visual disturbances, severe head pain, nausea and dizziness days after the blow to the head. This is why it is important to go to an emergency room immediately after receiving a blow to the head, even if no initial symptoms are experienced.
Any migraine that lasts for over 72 hours continuously is a medical emergency. Call an ambulance immediately. Also call an ambulance if the eye migraine is accompanied by coordination problems, numbness on one side or part of the body or extreme confusion. This could be the sign of a stroke or “mini-stroke”, a transient ischemic attack or TIA.
“Migraines For Dummies.” Diane Stafford & Jennifer Shoquist, MD. Wiley Publishing; 2003.
All Abut Vision. “Guide to Ocular Migraines.” Marilyn Haddrill & Charles Slonim, MD. http://www.allaboutvision.com/conditions/ocular-migraine.htm
Mayo Clinic. “Ocular Migraine: What Causes It?” http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/ocular-migraine/AN01681
Relieve Migraine Hedache.com “Ocular Migraine.” http://www.relieve-migraine-headache.com/ocular-migraine.html
International Headache Society Classification IHCD-II. http://www.ihs-classification.org/en/