There are many types of headaches, and migraines are usually regarded as the worst. When someone suffers from migraines, they may spend entire days of their life hiding in bed with the curtains drawn and a big bottle of strong painkillers.

But “migraine” is actually a blanket term. There are several kinds of migraines, and some don’t even result in the classically known migraine headache. The ocular migraine, for example, may or may not come with a headache.

Ocular migraine vs. visual migraine

The term ocular migraine is commonly used to refer to any migraine headache that manifests with a visual disturbance, hence the word “ocular”. So ocular migraines and visual migraines tend to get lumped together under the blanket of “ocular migraine”, but they are actually two separate things.

The main difference between ocular and visual migraines is that ocular migraines occur in just one eye while visual migraines manifest in both. You can test for this by covering one eye at a time, similar to how you might test for eye dominance.

Both ocular migraines and visual migraines cause vision disturbances, but they are slightly different in what those disturbances are. 

Ocular migraines cause blind spots that slowly get larger. Visual migraines are a bit more creative with their visual distortions, causing wavy lines and blind spots that flicker or move. Visual migraines are sometimes called migraine auras. Occasionally the distortions of visual migraines are so bizarre that people describe them as psychedelic or kaleidoscopic.

An ocular migraine should last less than an hour and visual migraines are generally even shorter. Both typically occur before a migraine headache, but can also occur simultaneously, after or independently of one.

True ocular migraines are rare. Often the symptoms are caused by other problems, some of which can be serious.

Signs of an ocular migraine

Besides the obvious visual issues, several other signs may present themselves before the onset of an ocular migraine. You may experience lethargy or have difficulty focusing.

What causes an ocular migraine?

Migraines are not completely understood, but we do know that they occur when a mechanism deep in the brain releases inflammatory substances around nerves and blood vessels in the brain. Spasms in the blood vessels in and around the retina can also lead to ocular migraines. Ultimately migraines boil down to a change in blood flow in the brain, but the exact causes of this are not fully known.

There is likely a genetic component to ocular migraines. Nearly two-thirds of all migraine sufferers have a family history of migraine headaches.

Ocular migraine triggers

Common migraine triggers are usually stress, strong scents or certain foods. Caffeinated foods and drinks like chocolate and coffee can set off ocular migraines, as can some artificial sweeteners and food additives like MSG. Particularly strong scents, such as heavy perfumes or respiratory irritants like smoke from cigarettes have also been known to set off migraines of all kinds.

Everyone is different, and some ocular migraines come on without a noticeable trigger. Some activities may make migraines worse. Wearing outdated prescription glasses, for example, can cause eyestrain which may trigger an ocular migraine in some people. For long tasks that require focus, make sure you are using a good pair of accurate glasses from so your eyes don’t overtax themselves.

Preventing and treating ocular migraines

Treatment for ocular migraines depends on whether or not they are accompanied by painful headaches. If migraine headaches are present, then your doctor may be able to treat them with medicine. Some research into specially-tinted eyeglasses has shown promise, as well.

If you notice the symptoms of an ocular migraine coming on, immediately stop what you are doing, especially if you are driving, working with tools, or in any other situation where compromised vision could lead to injury. Do what you need to do to relax and wait for the symptoms to pass. Many people remove their prescription eyeglasses or contact lenses and lay down.

Prevention may be as simple as avoiding your “triggers” and eating a healthy diet. Some medicines have also been approved for the prevention of migraines.

Plenty of sleep and some moderate exercise may also decrease your ocular migraines. Yoga and massages have been known to help some people, as well. Your doctor can help you come up with a personalized prevention plan based on your circumstances. Keeping a log of your activities and diet on days when you experience an ocular migraine is a good way to help identify possible triggers.

Unfortunately, preventative measures are no guarantee. If you experience chronic migraines, you will likely not be able to prevent them by lifestyle changes alone.

When to see a doctor

If you’ve never had an ocular migraine before and suddenly experience one, contact your doctor. Ocular migraines can be harmless, but sometimes they signal more severe problems, such as retinal detachment. If you experience ocular headaches but suddenly notice them lasting longer or occurring more frequently, that should also be cause to call your eye doctor.

Whether or not you seek medical treatment for you migraines depends entirely on how much they affect your life. If you have any questions, it is always better to ask a medical professional.