What Is a Retinal Migraine?

A type of ocular migraine that affects only one eye

Retinal migraine is a rare type of migraine characterized by changes in vision that are monocular, or affect only one eye. Usually, these symptoms precede a headache, but not always.

Some practitioners use the term ocular migraine to refer to retinal migraine, but strictly speaking, the retinal migraine is one of two subtypes of ocular migraine. The other type of ocular migraine is migraine with aura, in which the visual disturbances that come before head pain affect both eyes.

Types of Ocular Migraine
Retinal Migraine Migraine With Aura
Vision changes in one eye only Vision changes in both eyes

Proper diagnosis of retinal migraine is important, as a vision problem that affects only one eye can be a symptom of a serious condition, such as stroke or a detached retina.

Once diagnosed with retinal migraines, managing the condition usually focuses on preventing episodes with lifestyle changes, identifying and avoiding triggers, and, if necessary, the same prophylactic medications used to prevent "regular" migraine headaches (the ones with auras).



Many specific changes in vision have been reported by people who've had retinal migraines. In one of the few studies looking at these specific symptoms, these include:

  • Complete loss of eyesight (50% of subjects)
  • Blurred vision (20%)
  • Scotoma, or blind spot (13%)
  • Partial loss of vision (12%)
  • Dimming of vision (7%)

Some people also experience scintillations, or flashes of light.

Remember, these symptoms affect only one eye. This means if you were to close the eye that's affected, your vision out of the other eye would be normal. By contrast, visual changes resulting from migraine with aura would be apparent whichever eye is open.

According to the American Migraine Foundation, "in retinal migraine, the vision symptoms are coming from the eye (so are only seen with one eye), while in migraine with typical aura the vision symptoms are coming from the brain (so are seen with both eyes)." 

Most of the time, retinal migraine symptoms are relatively short and last between five and 20 minutes. However, visual disturbances can last up to an hour before a headache and other migraine symptoms set in.

About 75% of the time, migraine pain will develop on the same side of the head as the affected eye.

eye pain retinal migraine
gawrav / Getty Images

Causes and Risk Factors

The exact physiology of retinal migraine is unknown.

A vasospasm is the narrowing of vessels that supply blood. It can affect the retina or ciliary body vessels. The ciliary body is a separate structure that produces fluid and contains the muscle that changes the shape of the lens of the eye to help with focus.

Like all migraine headaches, retinal migraines are brought on by specific triggers. The following factors may trigger or cause a retinal migraine to occur:

  • Stress
  • Smoking
  • High blood pressure
  • Birth control pills
  • Exercise
  • High altitude
  • Dehydration
  • Low blood sugar
  • Excessive heat

People at increased risk of retinal migraine headaches include those who:

  • Are in their 20s or 30s
  • Are women, due to hormonal changes related to the menstrual cycle
  • Have a history of other types of migraine
  • Have a family history of migraine headache
  • Have lupus, atherosclerosis, or sickle cell disease

Retinal migraines may be triggered by:

  • Staring at a screen for long periods
  • Spending time in fluorescent or other harsh lighting
  • Driving long distances
  • Participating in other taxing visual activities


No designated tests can diagnose retinal migraines. Healthcare providers look at your medical history and symptoms, perform a physical exam, and, in most cases, order tests to rule out other potential causes of monocular vision loss.

For example, a brain scan may be used to see whether you've had a stroke, while blood tests or urinalysis may be ordered to check for lupus or sickle cell anemia.

To be diagnosed as retinal migraine, the visual aura must involve only one eye, be temporary, and meet at least two of the following criteria:

  • Spreads gradually over the course of five minutes or more
  • Lasts for five minutes up to an hour
  • Is accompanied or followed (within an hour) by a headache

Treatment and Prevention

The focus of managing retinal migraines is on prevention rather than using abortive medications to stop them once they occur.

This approach begins with identifying triggers that may be responsible for bringing on symptoms. Keeping a written log of when retinal migraines occur and what you were doing just prior to vision changes is the easiest and most straightforward way to do this.

Once you know what is likely to cause your retinal migraines, you may be able to keep them at bay by avoiding those triggers—quitting smoking, for example, or switching to a non-hormonal contraceptive.

If you need preventive medication, your healthcare provider may prescribe an oral migraine prevention medication, such as:

  • A beta-blocker, like Inderal (propanolol)
  • A calcium channel blocker, like Calan (verapamil) or Procardia (nifedipine), which primarily are used to treat high blood pressure
  • Amitriptyline, a tricyclic antidepressant
  • Valproic acid, like Depakote, Depacon, and Topamax (topiramate), medications commonly used to prevent seizures

To deal with head pain and other symptoms that follow the visual disturbances of retinal migraine, you can turn to pain relievers, including Tylenol (acetaminophen) and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as Advil (ibuprofen).


Until they subside on their own, the American Migraine Foundation suggests taking measures to relieve the visual symptoms caused by retinal migraines.

Some ways to ease visual symptoms of retinal migraine are to:

  • Rest your eyes
  • Get away from harsh light or sunlight
  • Take break from looking at a screen

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Can anxiety cause ocular migraines?

    Yes, anxiety can lead to ocular migraines. Stress and dehydration are also commonly associated triggers. The exact cause of ocular migraines is not fully understood, but they may be related to a family history of migraines.

  • Can you have an ocular migraine in one eye?

    Yes, you can have an ocular migraine in one eye. An ocular migraine episode may cause one eye to see flashing images alongside a headache. These episodes do not usually last long, but they can be uncomfortable. It is more common that a small blind spot known as a scotoma takes up the vision of one eye.

  • Are there home remedies for ocular migraine relief?

    They aren't exactly home remedies, but measures you can take that may help in ocular migraine relief. Try applying light pressure to your temples, lying down in a dark and quiet room, placing a damp towel on your forehead, and lightly massaging your scalp. An over-the-counter painkiller can also reduce the headache, but treatments provided by a healthcare provider will always be the most effective options for ocular migraine relief.

  • What does a retinal migraine feel like?

    If you have a retinal migraine, you might experience seeing bright flashes or twinkling lights, partial vision loss, or temporary blindness in one eye. Usually, these symptoms only last several minutes and are followed by a headache.

  • What is the difference between retinal migraine and ocular migraine?

    A retinal migraine is a type of ocular migraine. However, it's different than the other type (migraine with aura) because it only affects one eye.

  • Is a retinal migraine an emergency?

    It may be a sign of a more serious condition. Contact your healthcare provider if you think you have a retinal migraine.

Guest Author: Rosalyn Carson-DeWitt, MD. Rosalyn Carson-DeWitt, MD, is a medical writer, editor, and consultant. She was editor-in-chief for "The Encyclopedia of Drugs, Alcohol, and Addictive Behavior and Drugs," and "Alcohol, and Tobacco: Learning About Addictive Behavior."

5 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Prasad S, Galetta SL. Approach to the patient with acute monocular visual loss. Neurol Clin Pract. 2012 Mar;2(1):14-23. doi:10.1212/CPJ.0b013e31824cb084

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Additional Reading

By Rosalyn Carson-DeWitt, MD
Rosalyn Carson-DeWitt, MD is a medical writer, editor, and consultant.