Flashing lights in the eyes can be concerning to patients as this can be a sign of retinal detachment or other retinal problems. It is extremely important to see an ophthalmologist if you have flashing in your eyes. An eye exam can reveal problems with the vitreous fluid, the retina, or even signs of a stroke.
Ocular migraines or eye migraines are one cause of visual disturbance that often does not need treatment (though it’s still important to have a complete eye evaluation to rule out more serious causes). Migraines are thought to be caused by spasm of blood vessels in the brain. If this happens in the temple area, a “classic” migraine can result in severe often one-sided headache, sound sensitivity, nausea, and vomiting. If, on the other hand, the spasm of blood vessels occurs in the back of the brain where the vision is processed, a different set of symptoms occurs. Visual symptoms vary from patient to patient or even from one episode to the next. They can involve shimmering light, heat-wave effects, jagged black and silver arcs, whited out areas or blank patches. Often the visual affects last between 5 and 60 minutes and can change during this period. Anxiety and mild disorientation are common during the episodes. A mild headache can occur and can last for several hours. Some people have things that trigger their ophthalmic migraines: certain foods such as caffeine, chocolate, red wine, blue cheese, nuts and processed meats. Stress or release of stress, bright lights and exercise can also be triggers. It’s common for patients to have a two or three episodes within a short number of days and then for them to go away for months.
Treatments often are not necessary because the visual disturbance lasts for a short time and the headaches aren’t severe. Some people find that taking an aspirin at the onset of their symptoms can prevent the headache altogether. While caffeine can cause eye migraines in some people, for others sipping a small amount of a caffeinated beverage can stop the symptoms. It is important to stop driving if you experience any type of visual effect. If visual symptoms last more than an hour, this can be a sign of something more serious and medical attention should be sought right away.
-Donald McCormack, MD
If you would like to schedule an appointment with Dr. McCormack, please call (303) 440-3049.