Although these terms are often used synonymously, ocular and retinal migraines are actually two different conditions. Both can manifest suddenly, and thus they can be quite frightening. Symptoms of both conditions can include a temporary partial or complete loss of vision and/or flashing, pulsating lights, or floating shapes in one or both eyes. A careful review of the symptoms of each of these types of migraines can help differentiate the two and indicate when there is a need to see a professional.
Ocular migraine is the term used when people who experience migraines also have what is called an aura. An aura is a visual disturbance that can occur alone or in conjunction with other migraine symptoms, such as headache, nausea, photosensitivity, and sensitivity to sounds. Ocular migraines are fairly common, and while annoying, they do not pose a permanent threat to vision. The visual symptoms of migraine aura are usually short-lived; generally lasting less than half an hour. One important way to differentiate between an ocular migraine and a retinal migraine is that an ocular migraine will disrupt vision in both eyes, whereas a retinal migraine will disrupt vision only in one eye.
Retinal migraines can be a symptom of a variety of more serious conditions, and they are much rarer than ocular migraines. Like ocular migraines, they can occur with or without other migraine symptoms, though they generally precede a migraine headache and last anywhere from a few minutes up to an hour. The visual disturbance is often characterized by flashing lights, patterns, or zigzag lines and may be experienced only once in a lifetime, or may manifest quite frequently. If the retinal migraine is followed by a headache, it will usually be experienced on one side of the head and will pulsate and throb. Movement will generally exacerbate the pain.
Other conditions that may be associated with a retinal migraine can include stroke, blood clots, arterial spasms in the vessel that supplies blood to the eye, and drug abuse. It is also vital to rule out a detached retina, which is a condition that requires immediate treatment. Since the causes of visual migraines are not well understood, it is important to see an eye care professional in order to rule out some of these more serious conditions.
If you are experiencing either an ocular or a retinal migraine for the first time, it is very important to see an ophthalmologist, both for an accurate diagnosis and to explore potential treatments if they are warranted. Since these terms are so often confused, even by medical professionals, it is essential to have a clear understanding of the varying symptoms and to be able to describe them carefully to the practitioner. Keep in mind that it is fairly rare to have a permanent loss of vision with retinal migraines, but it can occur.
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