Eye Health Central

What Are Retinal Migraines And Why Are They So Serious?

Retinal Migraines explained

retinal migraines

Almost everyone knows visual disturbances often accompany migraines, but most people aren’t aware there are two distinct migraine-related visual issues. When people experience a temporary loss of vision before a migraine, they tend to assume their symptoms are related to “visual auras" and a prelude to a migraine. Although these auras are common and usually benign, there’s also the possibility that these vision issues could be a “retinal migraine.” Unlike visual auras, retinal migraines are quite rare and often require prompt medical attention.

This article will help you gain a better understanding of these two visual issues. In addition to exploring the distinctions between retinal migraines and visual auras, we’ll also list the major causes, risk factors, and treatments available to migraine patients.

Retinal Migraines Vs. Visual Auras: What’s The Difference?

The key distinction between these two visual issues is that retinal migraines (also referred to as optical migraines) only affect one eye while visual auras tend to affect both eyes. So, the easiest way to tell whether or not you’re suffering from a retinal migraine is to wink your eyes while you’re experiencing symptoms. If you only notice complete vision loss in one eye, then chances are good that you have a retinal migraine.

In contrast to visual auras, retinal migraines also tend to completely blind the affected eye for between 30 to 60 minutes. People experiencing visual auras, on the other hand, usually report seeing flashing lights, a shimmering halo, or cloudy specks, but not a complete loss of vision. The duration of visual halos also ranges from 30 to 60 minutes.

Thankfully, both of these visual symptoms usually resolve themselves within about an hour. Unfortunately, these sight issues often signal an upcoming migraine headache.

The Basic Biology Of Migraines

In the past, many headache specialists believed migraine symptoms were brought on solely due to blood flow abnormalities in a person’s brain. While scientists still believe blood level fluctuations contribute to migraine symptoms, they believe other brain chemicals can contribute to this painful condition.

What neurotransmitter researchers are focusing on nowadays is serotonin. Sometimes called the “happiness chemical,” serotonin is essential for promoting feelings of well-being in the brain. Recent brain scans also show that serotonin plays a crucial role in narrowing blood vessels in the brain before a migraine episode.

Rapid shifts in serotonin and the hormone estrogen have also been shown to increase the risk of migraine. Since estrogen is a predominately feminine hormone, this could be a reason why women are more likely than men to suffer from chronic migraines.

Common Causes & Risk Factors For Migraines

There are dozens of potential causes for migraine headaches including

  • Allergic reactions
  • Dietary Triggers
  • Dehydration
  • Genetics
  • Hormonal fluctuations
  • Smoking
  • Sleep Issues
  • Psychological Stress

Below we explore a few of the major causes of migraine headaches, especially migraines brought on by retinal migraines.

A Few Dietary Triggers

There’s a growing body of evidence that certain foods and drinks could trigger a migraine episode. 

Believe it or not, one of the most common triggers for migraines is aged cheese. Almost all varieties of cheese develop a chemical known as tyramine during the aging process. Many scientists believe tyramine is responsible for the increased risk of migraines.

As a general rule of thumb, people prone to migraines should also cut back on sugars and artificial sweeteners. Chemicals like MSG and aspartame, for instance, have been linked to a higher incidence of migraines.

People prone to migraines are advised to speak with a registered nutritionist if they believe diet might play a role in their symptoms.


62% percent of people in the UK aren’t drinking enough water every day. If you’re not getting plenty of water in your daily routine, then you run the risk of suffering symptoms like dry mouth, dizziness, and, yes, even migraines.

There’s no standard for how much water you need to drink, but most scientists recommend between 2 to 3 liters per day. Of course, the warmer the weather and the more active you are, the more water your body will require.

People who don’t like the taste of plain water could substitute with unsweetened seltzer water or hydrating teas like chamomile and lavender. You could also consider eating or juicing hydrating foods like cucumbers, watermelons, and cantaloupes.

In addition to drinking more water, it’s important to cut back on dehydrating beverages. A few migraine triggers to look out for include alcoholic beverages, coffee, and soda.


Recent statistics suggest that having a first-degree relative who is prone to migraines makes you twice as likely to suffer from them too. 

If a baby’s parents are both migraine sufferers, then there’s a 75 percent higher chance that their child will develop chronic migraines than a child born to migraine-free parents. This migraine risk goes down to 50 percent if only one of the child’s parents has frequent migraines.

The specific gene researchers believe is involved in migraine susceptibility is known as TRESK. Doctors are hopeful this information could be useful in the future to develop gene therapies for migraine patients.


You can’t choose what genes you’re born with, but you could choose to end another huge migraine risk factor: cigarette smoking.

A recent study published by the Spanish Foundation for Science and Technology discovered smoking just five cigarettes every day could significantly increase a person’s risk of migraines. Ironically, many of the people interviewed in this study said they used cigarettes as a way to self-medicate.

People who are trying to quit cigarettes, alcohol, or even coffee could also experience severe migraines as a withdrawal symptom. To reduce the severity of these withdrawals, it’s a good idea to work with addiction specialists to slowly taper off a drug.

Any smokers living in the UK who are interested in kicking their habit should look into NHS’s “Smokefree” program on this link.

Sleep Issues

How sleeping problems influence migraines is a classic “chicken and egg” conundrum. It’s very difficult for doctors to figure out whether sleep issues cause migraines or migraines keep patients from getting good quality sleep.

Regardless, it’s clear that sleep problems and migraines are interlinked. People who frequently experience symptoms like insomnia or daytime fatigue on top of their migraines might want to consult a sleep specialist to improve their symptoms.

Psychological Stress

Oftentimes migraines are interwoven with mental health issues like depression, anxiety and stress. Interestingly, many studies have shown migraine sufferers experience tremendous relief after taking placebo pills, indicating that migraines could sometimes be considered a mind-body problem.

It’s important for all migraine sufferers to find an effective form of stress reduction to add to their treatment regimen. Just a few great stress relievers you could consider adding to your daily routine include:

• Meditation
• Exercise
• Journaling
• Aromatherapy
• Epsom salt baths
• Listening to soothing music
• Tai Chi
• Yoga

Severe Causes Of Migraines

Retinal migraines should always be taken seriously because they usually indicate a serious underlying condition.

Temporary blindness in one eye is a standard warning sign before the onset of a stroke. A retinal migraine could also signal many potential sight threatening disorders like retinal detachment or an eye stroke.

Even if your retinal migraine resolves within a few hours, you should treat it as a warning sign of a more serious condition. Anyone who has experienced temporary blindness in one eye must speak with an optometrist ASAP to get a better understanding of what's happening.

When Should You See A Doctor?

As mentioned above, you should see a doctor immediately after you experience a retinal migraine. Since this visual issue is relatively rare, it could signal a major disorder.

Migraines accompanied by visual halos, however, are more common and generally don’t signal any underlying issues. You should only see a doctor for these types of migraines if you’re having multiple episodes per week.

Conventional Treatments For Migraines

After your doctor determines the reason for your migraine, they will tailor a treatment program to help you overcome your symptoms. Oftentimes this involves drug therapy, diet changes, physical therapy, and stress-reduction techniques.

For more serious cases, migraine patients could opt for Botox injections. Often associated with cosmetic surgeries, Botox injections have also been proven to help naturally reduce muscle tension and increase blood flow to the brain.

Typically migraine sufferers only need one Botox treatment session per 12 months. To find out more about Botox for migraines, check out this link to an official NHS webpage.

Alternative Therapies For Migraines

In recent years, many migraine patients have become interested in the Chinese healing art of acupuncture. Although more research is needed to prove acupuncture’s health benefits, there’s a great deal of anecdotal evidence that regular acupuncture sessions could reduce migraine frequency and severity.

You can also consider scheduling a soothing massage session every few weeks. Popular massage options for migraine sufferers include Swedish massage, trigger point therapy, and hot stones.

Another alternative therapy that could help migraine patients is magnesium supplementation. Many patients with chronic migraines also have a deficiency in this essential relaxation mineral. Ask your doctor for a blood test to find out whether magnesium supplements are right for you.

Don’t Suffer In Silence: Take Charge Of Your Migraine Today

Recent statistics from the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) suggest about 6 million UK citizens suffer from chronic migraines. Another report out of the UK-based Migraine Trust found that about 190,000 people in the UK suffer from a migraine every day. Migraines often cause people to miss important work meetings and/or social events and could lead to serious psychological issues like depression and anxiety. People who are suffering from frequent migraines need to know that there are treatment options available to them through the NHS and the Migraine Trust. Be sure to schedule an appointment with your doctor if migraines are interfering with your daily life. 

Author: John Dreyer Optometrist Bsc(Hons), MCOPTOM, DipCLP
Created: 22 May 2023, Last modified: 20 May 2024