Optical Migraines – Definition, Symptoms, Treatment And Medication

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What Is Optical Migraines? Migraines are a specific type of headache characterized by symptoms such as pulsing, throbbing pain, nausea and visual disturbances.

While a classic migraine is defined as having all or most of these symptoms, some people only have optical migraine symptoms which are quite disturbing all on their own.

About Migraines

Migraine headaches are a neurological condition thought to be caused by sudden changes in levels of the neurotransmitter, serotonin.  These changes may trigger contraction and then dilation of blood vessels that supply certain areas of the brain with blood and oxygen. 

Changing the blood flow may cause inflammation of the brain cells and corresponding pain.  Specifically, the constriction of the blood flow may cause the visual disturbances commonly associated with optical migraine headaches, while the dilation and inflammation is thought to be related to the pain of the headache. 

Ocular migraines along with other classic migraine symptoms may also be hormonally related, being triggered at specific times of the menstrual cycle or under times of stress.

Ocular Migraine Symptoms

Though all people who have migraines do not experience eye migraine symptoms, occurrences of visual disturbances are quite common and considered to be a “hallmark” symptom of migraine headaches. 

Visual migraine symptoms are often present during a prodromal period that precedes the onset of other symptoms such as nausea, sensitivity to sound and the debilitating pain. 

Others experience a type of “silent migraine” where one does not ever get the actual headache but instead only experiences the visual migraine symptoms along with the possibility of nausea and sensitivity.

Optic migraine symptoms vary from individual to individual but may include disturbances such as:

  • Auras – the seeing of “halos” of color around objects
  • Sheeting colors – the entire visual field may fluctuate in color such as from purple to yellow to purple and so on in a cyclical fashion
  • Blind spots – areas of the vision field may appear to be blank or darkened
  • Tunnel vision – the visual field shrinks as if one is peering through a tunnel
  • Light spots – spots or bars appearing to be bright or colored lights may appear in the field of vision
  • Light sensitivity – in late stage optical migraine, one may become extremely sensitive to light and wish to remain in a darkened room

Treatment of Optical Migraines

As optic migraine symptoms are often experienced as a “prodromal” symptom, meaning that the visual disturbance occurs several hours, possibly even days before the onset of other symptoms (pain and nausea), it is important to note and treat the visual migraine symptoms immediately. 

Treatment during this period of time, before the pain starts may eliminate the development of the more debilitating symptoms.  Treatments for optical migraine symptoms include standard medications used for classic migraine treatment such as:

  • Acetaminophen (Tylenol)
  • Non steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (ibuprofen, naproxen)
  • Serotonin antagonists (sumatriptan/Imitrex, zolmitriptan/Zomig)
  • Caffeine analgesics (Excedrine, Anacin, Fiorinal, Fioricet)

Some physicians may choose to attempt to prevent optical migraine symptom development by prescribing medications for daily use that may help decrease triggers including hormonal imbalances, blood pressure surges, anxiety and changes in serotonin levels in the brain by using medications such as:

  • Hormones (birth control pills)
  • Blood pressure medications (beta blockers: propranolol/Inderal)
  • Antidepressants (amitriptyline/Elavil, fluoxetine/Prozac)

Whether you have classic migraines with visual symptoms or a condition that includes silent optical migraine symptoms, it is thought that identifying and avoiding triggers may help reduce or eliminate occurrences. 

Common triggers include stress, extreme physical exertion, exposure to foods such as malt liquor, red wine, MSG and fermented or processed foods, and bright light.  Knowing what triggers your migraine and getting immediate treatment at the onset of optical migraine symptoms will be key in reducing the disability this condition often causes.

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