Causes of Ocular Migraines

Written by The Healthline Editorial Team
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD, MBA on March 28, 2013

What Causes Ocular Migraines

A migraine that involves visual disturbance is called an ocular migraine. Ocular migraines can develop with or without the accompanying pain of a classic migraine.

During an ocular migraine, or migraine with aura, you may see flashing or shimmering lights, zigzagging lines, or stars. Some people describe psychedelic images. It may also cause blind spots in your field of vision. Of people who report having migraines, one out of every five experiences this aura (Womenshealth.gov, 2012).

Ocular migraines can interfere with your ability to perform tasks like reading, writing, or driving. Symptoms are temporary and an ocular migraine is not considered a serious condition.

Ocular migraine is sometimes confused with retinal migraine, but they are two distinct conditions. A retinal migraine is rare and affects only one eye. Loss of vision in one eye can be a symptom of a more serious medical issue. If you have vision loss in one eye, you should seek medical attention to rule out any underlying conditions.

Exactly what causes ocular migraine is not known, but a personal or family history of migraines is a known risk factor. Doctors theorize that ocular migraine has the same causes as classic migraine.

If you've never experienced an ocular migraine before, make an appointment to see your doctor.

Genetics

There is a genetic link to migraine. A family history of migraine or ocular migraine increases your chances of having them.

Hormone Levels

Migraine has been linked to the female hormone estrogen. Estrogen controls chemicals in the brain that affect the sensation of pain. In women, hormones fluctuate due to the menstrual cycle, pregnancy, and menopause. Hormone levels are also affected by oral contraceptives and hormone replacement therapies.

Triggers

Many people are able to identify migraine triggers, but research has shown that it is more likely a combination of factors that trigger migraine. Triggers vary from person to person and include:

  • bright lights
  • loud sounds
  • powerful odors
  • stress, anxiety, relaxation after a period of stress
  • changing weather
  • alcoholic beverages, especially red wine
  • too much caffeine or withdrawal from caffeine
  • foods containing nitrates (hot dogs, luncheon meats)
  • foods containing monosodium glutamate, also known as MSG (fast foods, seasonings, spices, broths)
  • foods containing tyramine (aged cheeses, hard sausages, smoked fish, soy products, fava beans)
  • artificial sweeteners

You can try to identify your migraine triggers by keeping a headache diary. The diary should include notes on diet, exercise, sleep habits, and menstruation.

Secondary Headaches

Sometimes, headaches with aura are a symptom of an underlying condition. These can include:

  • head injury
  • brain tumor
  • hemorrhagic stroke (a burst artery in the brain)
  • ischemic stroke (blocked artery in the brain)
  • aneurysm (widening or bulging of part of an artery due to weakness in the wall of the blood vessel)
  • arteriovenous malformation (abnormal tangle of veins and arteries in the brain)
  • arterial dissection (a tear in an artery that supplies blood to the brain)
  • cerebral vasculitis (inflammation of the blood vessel system in the vein)
  • hydrocephalus (excessive buildup of cerebrospinal fluid in the brain)
  • inflammation due to meningitis, encephalitis, or other infections
  • seizures
  • trigeminal neuralgia
  • structural abnormalities of the head, neck, or spine
  • spinal fluid leak
  • exposure to or withdrawal from toxic substances

Migraine with Aura and Your Heart

Two recent studies indicate that migraine with aura can contribute to the development of a heart attack and stroke (American Academy of Neurology, 2013). Women who have migraines and take newer oral contraceptives may also be at increased risk of blood clots. 

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