Kaleidoscope vision is a short-lived distortion of vision that causes things to look as if you’re peering through a kaleidoscope. Images are broken up and can be brightly colored or shiny.

Kaleidoscopic vision is most often caused by a type of migraine headache known as a visual or ocular migraine. A visual migraine occurs when nerve cells in the part of your brain responsible for vision begin firing erratically. It generally passes in 10 to 30 minutes.

But kaleidoscopic vision can be a symptom of more serious problems, including stroke, retinal damage, and serious brain injury.

A visual migraine is different from a retinal migraine. A retinal migraine is a more serious condition caused by a lack of blood flow to the eye. Sometimes the two terms are used interchangeably, so you may need to ask your doctor to clarify if you’re told you have one of these conditions.

Kaleidoscope vision is one of the symptoms of a broader category of responses to a visual migraine headache called migraine auras. Migraine auras can affect your vision, hearing, and sense of smell.

In kaleidoscopic vision, the images you see may appear to be broken up and brightly colored, like the image in a kaleidoscope. They may move around. You may also have a headache at the same time, although not everyone does. It can take one hour after the end of the migraine aura before you experience a headache.

You’ll usually see the distorted image in both eyes. But this can be hard to determine because it may appear only in a part of the visual field. The way to be sure if you’re seeing it in both eyes is first to cover one eye, and then the other.

If you see the distorted image in each eye separately, it means the problem is probably coming from the part of your brain involved in vision, and not the eye. This makes it more likely that the cause is an ocular migraine.

Kaleidoscopic vision and other aura effects can be a symptom of some more serious conditions, including a TIA (ministroke). A TIA, or transient ischemic attack, may be a precursor to a stroke that could be life-threatening. Therefore, it’s important to see an eye specialist if you experience kaleidoscopic vision, or any other aura effect, especially for the first time.

Other symptoms of migraine auras

Some of the other symptoms you may experience from migraine auras include:

  • zigzag lines which often shimmer (they may be colored or black and silver, and they may appear to move across your field of vision)
  • dots, stars, spots, squiggles, and “flash bulb” effects
  • a faint, foggy area surrounded by zigzag lines that can grow and break up over a period of 15 to 30 minutes
  • blind spots, tunnel vision, or total loss of vision for a short period
  • sensation of looking through water or heat waves
  • loss of color vision
  • objects appearing too large or too small, or too close or far away

Symptoms that can accompany migraine auras

At the same time as the visual aura, or after it, you may also experience other types of auras. These include:

  • Sensory aura. You’ll experience tingling in your fingers that spreads up your arm, sometimes reaching one side of your face and tongue over the course of 10 to 20 minutes.
  • Dysphasic aura. Your speech is disrupted and you forget words or can’t say what you mean.
  • Hemiplegic migraine. In this type of migraine, the limbs on one side of your body, and possibly the muscles of your face, might become weak.

Visual migraine

The most common cause of kaleidoscopic vision is a visual migraine. This may also be called an ocular or ophthalmic migraine. The technical term for it is scintillating scotoma. It most often occurs in both eyes.

About 25 to 30 percent of people who get migraines have visual symptoms.

A visual migraine occurs when the nerve endings in a back portion of the brain called the visual cortex become activated. The reason for this is unknown. In MRI imaging, it’s possible to see the activation spreading over the visual cortex as the migraine episode proceeds.

The symptoms usually pass within 30 minutes. You don’t necessarily get a headache at the same time. When you experience a visual migraine without a headache, it’s called an acephalgic migraine.

TIA or stroke

A TIA is caused by a decrease of blood flow to the brain. Although the symptoms of a TIA pass quickly, it’s a serious condition. It can signal the onset of a full-fledged stroke that can leave you incapacitated.

Sometimes a TIA can produce symptoms similar to those of a visual migraine, including kaleidoscopic vision. So, if you think you’re experiencing a visual migraine, it’s important to be sure that it’s not a TIA.

One of the differences is that in migraines, the symptoms usually occur in sequence: You may have visual symptoms first, followed by effects to the body or other senses. In a TIA, all the symptoms are experienced at the same time.

Retinal migraine

Some specialists may use the terms visual, ocular, or ophthalmic aura to describe a retinal migraine. A retinal migraine is a more serious condition than a visual migraine. It’s caused by lack of blood flow to the eye. It usually involves a blind spot or complete loss of vision in just one eye. But you may experience some of the same visual distortions as with migraine aura.

Be careful of the confusing terminology, and make sure you understand what you have.

MS and migraine

Migraines are more common in people with multiple sclerosis (MS). One study of MS patients attending a clinic showed that they experienced migraines at a rate three times greater than the general population.

But the causal connection between migraine and MS isn’t fully understood. Migraines may be a precursor of MS, or they may share a common cause, or the type of migraine that occurs with MS may be different than that of people without MS.

If you have an MS diagnosis and experience kaleidoscopic vision, it’s possible that it’s the result of a visual migraine. But don’t rule out the other possibilities of TIA or retinal migraine.

Hallucinogens

Kaleidoscopic vision, as well as some of the other visual distortions known as migraine auras, can be produced by hallucinogenic agents. Lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) and mescaline, in particular, can cause you to see very bright but unstable colored images that are prone to sudden kaleidoscopic transformation.

Here are some of the symptoms that may indicate your kaleidoscopic vision is caused by something more serious than a visual migraine:

  • appearance of new dark spots or floaters in one eye, possibly accompanied by flashes of light and loss of vision
  • new flashes of light in one eye that last longer than an hour
  • repeated episodes of temporary vision loss in one eye
  • tunnel vision or loss of vision on one side of the visual field
  • sudden change in duration or intensity of migraine symptoms

If you have any of these symptoms, see an eye specialist right away.

Kaleidoscopic vision is most often a result of a visual migraine. The symptoms will usually pass within 30 minutes, and youmay experience no headache pain at all.

But it can be a sign of something more serious, including an impending stroke or serious brain injury.

It’s important to see an eye specialist if you experience kaleidoscopic vision.