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An Optical Migraine FAQ

Optical migraines are a fairly common type among those who experience migraines. And yet many people don't fully understand what they are or what they entail. For them, we've developed these Frequently Asked Questions about optical migraines. 

  • So what is a migraine?  It's a recurring condition normally accompanied by an extremely painful headache. This headache usually affects only one side of the sufferer's head.  In most causes, an aura occurs just before a migraine attack. This aura could be in the form of visual flashes, spots, seeing a zigzag pattern of light, or even a ringing in the ears or smelling unusual odors that others don't hear. Other accompanying symptoms could include dizziness, nausea, vomiting and double vision. 
  • What's an optical migraine?  With an optical migraine, the aura is experienced--but minus the pain. This is much less common than the migraine which is accompanied by severe pain.  It's also called a visual migraine, an ocular migraine or an acephalgic migraine--the aura without the pain. The visual disturbances that one experiences are normally flashing lights in a zig-zag pattern.  The aura will typically start as a small visual march crossing the person's field of vision; slowly this will fade away.  These kinds of attacks will last for several minutes up to nearly an hour.  In some cases, an optical migraine is experienced as a blind spot in the person's field of vision. 
  • How can I know that what I'm experiencing is an optical migraine? One of the hallmarks of a migraine is that the same symptoms are experienced over and over for a period of many years.  In the case of an optical migraine, the same aura will be experienced over and over.  If you notice an alteration in the visual phenomenon, it could be something more serious, and a doctor should be notified. 
  • What's the cause of an optical migraine?  No cause has been nailed down definitively.  There are some theories though. For instance, one theory says they might be caused by allergies, by endocrine disturbances, or by a temporary edema in the brain.  The one thing we do know is that it has something to do with the brain's blood circulation being disturbed.  Without question, there is a link between the pain and the brain's blood vessels narrowing and then dilating. 
  • If my headaches are not migraines, what might they be? They could be something as simple and minor as a tension headache.  Or they could be something more serious.  In the case of visual changes, these might also be brought on by partial seizures.  Some other possibilities could be a retina becoming detached from the eye, a mini stroke, multiple sclerosis (MS) or even a brain tumor.  Please remember though that only a tiny minority of headaches are ever anything more serious than a migraine. 
  • Who's likely to get optical migraines? Women experience them more often than men, by about three to one. Also, if someone in your family history experienced them, you're more likely to have them. 
  • How are optical migraines treated? Some common medications prescribed include sedatives and aspirin. Also, resting and sleeping in the dark often relieves the symptoms.  But if an optical migraine is accompanied by a serious headache, sometimes the doctor will suggest that the patient be injected with triptans or ingestion, or that he be given beta-blockers, antiepileptic drugs or antidepressants.  For most medication to work, though, it's important for the person to recognize the aura  prior to the onset of the headache.
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