If you're experiencing flashes of light in peripheral vision, consider visiting your ophthalmologist
When is a headache not a headache? When it's a migraine -- without a moment of pain.
It's true. Some people suffer from an experience that brings them to JustAnswer concerned about their vision -- flashes of light in peripheral vision – that's actually a migraine in progress.
That's what Expert Dr. Dan B., a board-certified ophthalmologist, explained to a customer in a consultation that was visited over 36,000 times in 2017, making it one of the most popular in the JustAnswer eye health category. The customer in this session was seeing prisms in their peripheral vision, but never suffered a headache. And apparently tens of thousands of visitors last year were having the same experience.
Humans are visual creatures – we understand and define our world primarily through our eyes. Because we rely so heavily on our vision, when something goes wrong with our eyes it's scary, and we want to figure it out right away. And one of the kinds of vision problems that can occur suddenly and frighteningly is flashes of light in peripheral vision.
Not all vision problems are an emergency, though, and without a background in ophthalmology it’s hard to know the difference. On JustAnswer, eye health experts help people sort out many issues like prism effects in the peripheral vision, and use their expertise to suggest the best course of action. The transcripts created from these sessions are a great place to learn about symptoms you might be experiencing.
Seeing prisms in your peripheral vision
What those thousands of visitors read was that that the effect of these prisms is visible in both eyes, and is more electrical in appearance. With these responses, Dr. Dan B. came to his conclusion, and further explained,
“One of the less commonly known features of migraines is that many persons can have this visual migraine phenomenon without actually having headache; this is called an acephalgic migraine. The spectrum of severity of headaches among migraine sufferers runs the gamut from no headache to severe, debilitating headaches.”
He then suggests that the customer have an eye exam, to make sure that there isn’t anything else happening.
Recognizing migraine symptoms
Migraine headaches are very common, and are the third most prevalent illness in the world. They occur in 12 percent of the population, and can be incredibly debilitating, causing an estimated loss of $36 billion in productivity each year.
Migraines occur in people of all ages including children. According to a study of the 2003 National Health Interview Survey, they tend to build until around the age of 50, and are twice as common in women than in men.
When we look at the age and gender breakdown of the visitors to this session, we see a similar story:
If you are unfortunate enough to be one of these migraine sufferers, the experience has a major impact on your ability to function. According to Dr. Dan B.:
“A typical migraine starts with shimmering or flashing lights, oftentimes they surround a blurry area or have dots or jaggedly lines associated with them. They tend to progressively increase in intensity and sometimes march across the visual field. Many times, this is then accompanied by nausea, irritability, sensitivity to bright lights and/or loud noises, but everyone's pattern is different; some people don't have any of these other symptoms. After the onset of the lights (called scintillating scotomas), a headache typically starts, and the light show tends to progressively go away.”
Then, once the headache starts:
“One of the hallmarks of a person with a typical migraine headache is their need to abandon all activity in favor of a quiet, dark room where they can sleep off the headache.”
Depending on severity, the headaches stage of the migraine can extend from several hours to a few days. In addition to the throbbing headache, a migraine sufferer can also experience nausea or vomiting, hot flashes or cold chills, vertigo, and increased sensitivity to environmental factors such as light, scents and sounds.
Treating a migraine
While there isn’t anything that can be done to prevent migraines, there are ways to reduce the impact of the symptoms. Some of the things you can try include:
- Finding a relaxing and dark place where you can rest.
- Applying a cold compress to the painful area.
- Taking over-the-counter pain medications such as acetaminophen or aspirin.
Your doctor can prescribe stronger medications, from larger doses of NSAIDS to specialized medications like rizatriptan and sumatriptan.
And, while you may not be able to stop migraines, you can avoid some of the common triggers of migraines. From Dr. Dan B., again:
“There tend to be many varied triggers for migraines, but some of the most common are chocolate, wine and cheese, stress, overuse of the eyes, and exposure to fluorescent lighting.”
Paying attention to triggers like these in your life and your surroundings, and finding ways to avoid or reduce your exposure, may help you reduce the frequency of your migraines.
Identifying other problems
Flashes of light in peripheral vision can also be an indicator of other problems, though. When Dr. Dan B. was asking those questions at the beginning of the session, he was also looking for symptoms of other issues. What if the customer had answered those questions differently?
With over 14,000 visitors during the same time period, this closely related session also features Dr. Dan B. helping a customer with kaleidoscope like effects in their peripheral vision. This time, though, the customer indicates that the effect was only occurring in one eye, and that the light patterns were different than those described in the first session.
In this case, he again suggests that it may have been a migraine headache, but also presents the customer with a new possibility:
“These lights may be related to traction on the retina from the vitreous jelly in the back of the eye. This vitreous jelly, when we're born, has the consistency of a jello jiggler (thick jello). As we age it liquifies and becomes more fibrous bands and water. Because of this liquification and the resultant fibrous bands that are left, there becomes more points of traction that the jelly exerts on the back of the eye where it is attached. As we move our eyes in different directions and as our pupils change shape, or even as we rub our eyes, some of these bands can become unattached from the back of the eye and a piece of it floats around, attached still to the rest of the jelly. It is this traction of the vitreous jelly on the retina that can produce flashes that she may see. Sometimes this tractional process can cause little bits of the jelly to become detached from the retina producing what many people call “floaters”, which are little black spots that “float” around in the vision and move with our eye movements."
Dr. Dan B. suggests that the customer go in for a full dilation eye exam to check for retinal damage. If left untreated, this traction could lead to retinal detachment, which can cause permanent vision impairment or even loss of vision in that eye.
Looking at the data associated with the visitors to this session, we see a similar breakdown, which makes sense for such a closely related topic:
Monitoring your eye health
When most of us go in for an eye exam, we aren’t usually worried about much more than how expensive a new pair of glasses is going to cost, but we could leave the exam worried about our health, up to and fearing for our lives. The eye is one of the easiest places to look directly at a person’s blood vessels, so an eye exam is a chance to diagnose many seemingly unrelated types of disease, including
- High blood pressure
- Autoimmune diseases
- Sexually transmitted diseases
- Some cancers
It’s not just good for your vision to have a regular eye exam, it might even save your life! The American Academy of Ophthalmology recommends a full eye exam at age 40, and regular exams after that based on the recommendation of your ophthalmologist. After the age of 65, they recommend an eye exam every one or two years.
When you are experiencing vision problems like flashes of light in peripheral vision, it can be very helpful to have an eye health Expert like Dr Dan B. on JustAnswer to help you figure out what is going on. The answers they offer to your eye health questions can set your mind at ease, or spur you into action, depending upon your situation.
Have you found other effective ways to deal with your migraines? Share them in the comments!