Vision Changes

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last review date: December 2019

People living with migraine sometimes report vision changes before, during, or after the pain goes away. Others experience only visual changes, but no pain.

About 25 to 30 percent of people living with migraine have visual aura symptoms.1 Vision changes usually last less than 1 hour; often 10 to 30 minutes.1 The type and severity of vision changes may change over a lifetime.

What are the visual changes of migraine?

Changes in sight usually occur in both eyes, but sometimes in only part of the visual field.1 There are three general types of visual changes with migraine:1

  • Positive symptoms: This describes seeing something that is not really there, like shimmery zig-zag lines, sparkles, dots, or flashes.
  • Negative symptoms: This describes blind spots or tunnel vision.
  • Distorted or altered visual symptoms: This describes a sense of looking through water or colorful, cracked glass. Objects may appear too big or too small.

Ocular migraine is a medical term for a migraine that includes visual distortions.2 Ocular means connected to the eye. An ocular migraine may be classed as migraine with aura or retinal migraine. In retinal migraine, changes in vision only happen in 1 eye before or during the painful part of a migraine attack.2

Why do vision changes happen with migraine?

Doctors have a few ideas of what may cause vision changes during a migraine attack. Changes to electrical charges in the cortex of the brain may be the cause. Retinal migraine may be caused by the same electrical changes in the eye. Lack of blood flow to certain areas of the brain or eye may be the problem.2

More research is needed to find out what causes the visual changes that come with migraine.

How are vision changes with migraine treated?

Many options exist to treat migraine with visual aura. Drugs, including calcium channel blockers, antiepileptics, or tricyclics, may work for those with occasional migraine.2 Some people find that quitting smoking helps. Others may need to stop taking birth control pills.

Controlling the environment may help some people with migraine and vision distortions. Suggestions include:

  • Turning off harsh or bright lights
  • Drinking plenty of water
  • Reducing time in front of a computer and other electronic screens2

Tracking your migraine symptoms

Keeping a record of your migraine symptoms may help you figure out patterns and triggers to your attacks. It may be helpful to record such things as:

  • When and where your pain or symptoms start
  • Whether the pain spreads to your entire head or neck
  • How well and how quickly acute treatment helps reduce the pain or other symptoms
  • How long your pain or symptoms last
  • Whether you experience other symptoms such as vision changes, nausea, or light sensitivity

When vision changes could mean something else

Sometimes vision changes mean something more serious than a migraine. If you notice any of the following symptoms, call your doctor right away:1

  • New dark spots or floaters in one eye that do not go away
  • New flashes of light in 1 eye that do not go away
  • Periods of vision loss in 1 eye
  • Tunnel vision, loss of vision on 1 side, or periods of complete loss of vision without head pain

Community experiences of migraine and vision changes advocates and community members discuss vision changes as a migraine symptom. From fearing vision changes while driving to sharing experiences of vision loss and visual disturbances in one eye, connect with others in the community who have this symptom.

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