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What's Up Magazine

Eyes on Migraine

Dec 11, 2012 07:48PM ● By Cate Reynolds
Migraine. Just hearing the word is enough to give you a headache. Anyone who has ever suffered from one will tell you about the throbbing pain, the relentless nausea, and the acute sensitivity to light. It is believed that 18 percent of women and 6 percent of men must occasionally curl up in a dark room and wait one out. Well, how about a painless migraine then? Is that a new entry in the oxymoron dictionary, like plastic glasses or jumbo shrimp?

The term painless migraine usually refers to a migraine that hits you in the eye rather than in the head—an ocular migraine. Individuals suffer visual disturbances like vertigo, flashing lights, or blind spots in their fields of vision. Some describe the effect as looking through a cracked window. Fortunately, these visual anomalies (called aura without headache when both eyes are affected and retinal migraine when confined to one eye) generally represent no overall threat to vision or health.

Aura affects about 20 percent of migraine sufferers and can occur with or without pain. The visual events, lasting from five to 60 minutes, are essentially a warning that a migraine may be imminent. When a migraine headache does occur, an interruption in the fl ow of blood to the brain is thought to be responsible. According to the National Headache Institute, aura is produced when “hyperexcited nerves in the brain are activated.”

If the excited nerves are activated in the visual processing areas of the brain, the patient then experiences visual symptoms. Though short-lived, these visual events can surely interfere with daily activities such as reading or driving; but another concern is that “eye” migraines share symptoms with other more serious conditions, such as strokes, blood clots, Meniere’s disease, and detached retinas. In the case of unilateral symptoms, retinal detachment is the most worrisome risk. According to the Mayo Clinic, detachment is “an emergency situation,” when visual symptoms signal the separation of the retina “ from the layer of blood vessels that provides it with oxygen and nutrients.” This situation, unlike an eye migraine, actually puts vision at risk. Thus, if symptoms persist or recur, timely evaluation by an ophthalmologist is recommended.

For at least one individual, the relationship of migraines and vision may have served as an inspiration. Lewis Carroll, creator of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, was a migraine sufferer, and his diary described visual disturbances similar to aura. Many believe that the strange characters and places that he created were products of the visual anomalies that preceded his headaches. This may have allowed his stories, like migraine’s affect on the eye, to be “curiouser and curiouser!”