News Releases

December 5, 2000

Flashing lights in vision in both eyes not always a cause for alarm

ATLANTA - Many people have been told that experiencing flashing lights in their vision is a reason to see an eye doctor immediately with concerns about a retinal detachment. While this is true, there can be exceptions to that warning, says Nancy Newman, MD, a neuro-ophthalmologist at the Emory Eye Center.

Those who may experience sudden flashes of lights in their vision - in both eyes - may not need to worry that something catastrophic is happening to them. They may be experiencing an acephalgic (without headache) migraine, which is not normally a cause for alarm. Sudden flashing lights in vision can denote many things, but this sort of visual disturbance in both eyes is typically a benign phenomenon.

Acephalgic migraines or more commonly, visual auras of migraine, are relatively common among those who have previously had occurrences of migraine headaches, but perhaps have stopped experiencing them. The aura has no accompanying pain, but is somewhat disturbing to those experiencing them for the first time. What the patient experiences is a migraine without the pain. Instead, the aura that does accompany this type of migraine is typically its only symptom and builds with time. In other words, the symptoms begin small and grow over a few minutes. They are never maximal at onset, says Dr. Newman.

"Those experiencing auras need to make the very important distinction that the aura involves both eyes," says Dr. Newman. "The affected person can do that by covering one eye and then the other. If both eyes are experiencing the visual aura, then its source is the brain and it is not an eye disorder. The second distinction between an aura and something more serious is that the aura typically goes away in 15 to 30 minutes. If that's not the case, then seek medical attention immediately," she says.

Auras may be positive or negative. The positive aura, where patients report bright lights, shimmering lights and shapes, can take the form of zigzag lines. They may be colored. Negative auras are dark holes and blind spots. These episodes may last up to 30 minutes and then completely subside.

Accompanying symptoms sometimes occur after the visual occurrences and may include speech problems, tingling, numbness, weakness in extremities and perceptual disturbances, although these symptoms are less commonly. These auras seem to occur more often in women than men simply because migraines occur more often in women than in men.

It is important to reiterate that acephalgic visual auras differentiate from other disorders that are serious and need to be seen by a medical professional immediately. If the flashing light disturbance affects only one eye, it could be a sign of an impending retinal detachment. Halos or rings around lights, another visual disturbance, can indicate the onset of acute glaucoma. Additionally, auras that don't go away can be a sign of stroke. All of these situations require immediate medical help.

When in doubt about any medical condition, it is always wise to seek medical attention to rule out any serious disorder and perhaps prevent further involvement.

Media Contact: Joy H. Bell jbell@emory.edu 404-778-3711

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