Doctors previously used the term “ocular migraine” to refer to any migraine episode with visual symptoms. Now they favor more specific terms such as retinal migraine, which features symptoms in one eye, or migraine with aura, which can feature symptoms in both eyes.

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Roughly 17% of women and 6% of men experience migraine episodes each year. Migraine is a neurological condition that can cause headaches and other symptoms such as temporary changes in your vision.

Retinal migraine is a rare type of migraine associated with headaches and short-term vision loss in one eye. There have been descriptions of it in medical literature since the late 1800s. But it wasn’t until 1970 that Dr. Desmond Carrol coined the term.

Experts have sometimes used the term ocular migraine interchangeably with retinal migraine throughout the years. They generally no longer use it to avoid confusion with other types of migraine that cause vision changes.

Keep reading to learn more about retinal migraine and other types of episodes that people sometimes call ocular migraine.

The International Headache Society (IHS) defines a retinal migraine as a migraine associated with headaches that cause repeated temporary visual changes in one eye such as:

  • flashes or sparkles of light (scintillations)
  • partial vision loss or blind spots (scotomata)
  • blindness

Retinal migraine also goes by several other names such as:

  • ophthalmic migraine
  • monocular migraine
  • anterior visual pathway migraine

Vision loss usually lasts 10 to 20 minutes before it gradually returns. In most cases, the same eye is affected during each episode.

While the exact cause is still unknown, experts now think that retinal migraine episodes result from a wave of nerve cell deactivation that spreads across your retina. It’s not clear why this happens, but many people have certain triggers.

Common triggers for migraine (with or without aura) include:

There’s no cure for retinal migraine. Doctors usually recommend taking pain medication to treat headaches and to avoid your triggers. If these aren’t enough to effectively manage your migraine episodes, a doctor or healthcare professional may recommend preventive medications such as calcium channel blockers.

Experts previously used the term ocular migraine to refer to retinal migraine and sometimes to any migraine that caused visual symptoms.

The IHS doesn’t recognize ocular migraine as a type of migraine. To avoid confusion, medical professionals generally don’t use the term anymore.

But some clinicians and researchers may still use the term ocular migraine. For example, in a 2022 case study, researchers used the term instead of retinal migraine.

Migraine with aura

People sometimes use ocular migraine to refer to migraine with aura, another type of migraine that can cause visual symptoms.

A migraine with aura is characterized by recurring headaches that occur after or before sensory symptoms. They occur in roughly 1 in 3 people who experience migraine episodes. About 98 to 99% of people with migraine with aura episodes have visual symptoms.

Visual symptoms of aura may include:

  • flashing lights
  • blind spots
  • shimmering stars
  • zigzag patterns
  • vision loss or change in vision

Other symptoms of migraine with aura can include:

  • muscle weakness
  • speech problems
  • numbness or tingling, usually traveling up one arm before affecting your face, lips, and tongue

It’s not entirely clear what causes migraine with aura, but experts theorize it may also be because of a slow wave of abnormal electrical activity in your brain.

Many people find it helpful to move into a dark room and close their eyes once a migraine with aura begins. A cold compress on your forehead and pain relievers may help ease your headache. Sometimes doctors recommend preventive medications such as:

Learn more about migraine medications here.

Can you experience retinal or ocular migraine without a headache?

A retinal migraine and migraine with aura can occur without a headache. Roughly 38% of people who experience migraine with aura experience an aura without a headache at some point.

In a 2016 study, 3 out of 12 people with retinal migraine experienced temporary vision loss without headache.

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The IHS has renamed ophthalmoplegic migraine as recurrent painful ophthalmoplegic neuropathy (RPON). The IHS made the change because experts think these aren’t true migraine attacks but rather a type of neuropathy. Neuropathy is a collection of symptoms that results from damage to nerves outside your brain or spinal cord.

RPON causes partial paralysis of the muscles that control one eye. It also causes headache on one side. The headache may develop up to 14 days prior to other symptoms.

RPON is very rare and thought to occur in fewer than 1 in a million people. Symptoms may include:

Headache from RPON may last for up to a week. But weakness and pain around the eyes could persist for up to 3 months.

It’s not exactly clear what causes RPON. Some researchers think a compressed cranial nerve or lack of blood flow to cranial nerves may play a role. They often don’t require treatment.

Receiving steroids through an IV may help some people manage their symptoms. Other treatments include:

  • Botox injections
  • pregabalin and other medications for nerve pain
  • calcium channel blockers or beta-blockers
  • avoiding triggers

It’s important to see a doctor any time you have:

  • your first migraine
  • sudden vision changes or vision loss
  • more frequent or severe migraine episodes than usual
  • symptoms that cause concern

There are no specific tests for migraine. Still, a doctor may refer you to a specialist who can help you rule out other conditions with tests such as:

Seek emergency medical attention

It’s critical to look for emergency medical attention if you’re with somebody who experiences:

  • paralysis or weakness in one side of your face or in one or both arms
  • slurred or muddled speech
  • sudden headache with severe pain not experienced previously
  • vision changes
  • weakness or sensory changes on one side of your body
  • a headache with:
    • stiff neck
    • fever
    • confusion
    • seizures
    • rash
    • double vision

Here’s a comparison of retinal migraine, migraine with aura, and RPON.

Retinal migraineMigraine with auraRPON
Prevalencerarecommonvery rare
Key symptomvision loss or changes in vision in one eyevision changes in both eyeseye pain or muscle weakness in one eye
Associated with headaches?yesyesyes
Main treatmentsavoiding triggers, calcium channel blockersacute migraine therapies, avoiding triggers, preventive medicationssteroids administered through an IV, avoiding triggers

Retinal migraine usually causes a headache and temporary vision loss in one eye. Some people use the term ocular migraine to refer to retinal migraine, but it can also refer to other migraine episodes that cause visual symptoms such as migraine with aura.

It’s important to get medical attention if you have a migraine for the first time or if your symptoms are disrupting your daily life. A doctor can help you build a prevention plan and rule out other conditions.