Scintillating scotoma

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Scintillating scotoma
Example of a scintillating scotoma, as may be caused by cortical spreading depression
Classification and external resources
Specialty ophthalmology
ICD-10 H53.1
ICD-9-CM 368.12
eMedicine neuro/480
MeSH D012607

Scintillating scotoma is the most common visual aura preceding migraine and was first described by 19th-century physician Hubert Airy (1838–1903). It is often confused with ocular migraine, which originates in the eyeball or socket.

Signs and symptoms[edit]

An artist's depiction of a scintillating scotoma with a bilateral arc
A depiction of a scintillating scotoma that was almost spiral-shaped, with distortion of shapes but otherwise melting into the background similarly to the physiological blind spot
A depiction of a scintillating scotoma that was almost spiral-shaped, with distortion of shapes but otherwise melting into the background similarly to the physiological blind spot. This displays Widmanstätten patterns[citation needed]

Many variations occur, but scintillating scotoma usually begins as a spot of flickering light near or in the center of the visual field, which prevents vision within the scotoma area. The affected area flickers but is not dark. It then gradually expands outward from the initial spot. Vision remains normal beyond the borders of the expanding scotoma(s), with objects melting into the scotoma area background similarly to the physiological blind spot, which means that objects may be seen better by not looking directly at them in the early stages when the spot is in or near the center. The scotoma area may expand to completely occupy one half of the visual area, or it may also be bilateral. It may occur as an isolated symptom without headache in acephalgic migraine.

As the scotoma area expands, some people perceive only a bright flickering area that obstructs normal vision, while others describe seeing various patterns. Some describe seeing one or more shimmering arcs of white or colored flashing lights. An arc of light may gradually enlarge, become more obvious, and may take the form of a definite zigzag pattern, sometimes called a fortification spectrum (i.e. teichopsia, from Greek τεῖχος, town wall), because of its resemblance to the fortifications of a castle or fort seen from above.[1] It also can resemble the dazzle camouflage patterns used on ships in WWII. Others describe patterns within the arc as resembling Widmanstätten patterns.

The visual anomaly results from abnormal functioning of portions of the occipital cortex at the back of the brain, not in the eyes nor any component thereof, such as the retinas.[2] This is a different disease from retinal migraine, which is monocular (only one eye).[3]

It may be difficult to read and dangerous to drive a vehicle while the scotoma is present. Normal central vision may return several minutes before the scotoma disappears from peripheral vision.

Sufferers can keep a diary of dates on which the episodes occur to show to their physician, plus a small sketch of the anomaly, which may vary between episodes.


Scintillating scotomas are most commonly caused by cortical spreading depression, a pattern of changes in the behavior of nerves in the brain during a migraine. Migraines, in turn, may be caused by genetic influences and hormones. People with migraines often self-report triggers for migraines involving stress and a wide variety of foods.[4] While monosodium glutamate (MSG) is frequently reported as a dietary trigger,[5] some scientific studies do not support this claim.[6]

Scintillating scotoma may also be caused by other serious neurological or cardiovascular conditions, especially when the onset occurs later in life.[citation needed] The Framingham Heart Study, published in 1998, surveyed 5070 people between ages 30–62 and found that scintillating scotomas without other symptoms occurred in 1.23% of the group. The study did not find a link between late-life onset scintillating scotoma and stroke.[7]


Symptoms typically appear gradually over 5 to 20 minutes and generally last fewer than 60 minutes, leading to the headache in classic migraine with aura, or resolving without consequence in acephalgic migraine.[1] Many migraine sufferers change from scintillating scotoma as a prodrome to migraine to scintillating scotoma without migraine. The scotoma typically spontaneously resolves within the stated time frame, leaving few or no subsequent symptoms, though some report fatigue, nausea, and dizziness as sequelae.[8]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b "". Retrieved 24 June 2015. 
  2. ^ "". Retrieved 24 June 2015. 
  3. ^ "Retinal migraine". Retrieved 24 June 2015. 
  4. ^ [1][dead link]
  5. ^ Sun-Edelstein C, Mauskop A (June 2009). "Foods and supplements in the management of migraine headaches". The Clinical Journal of Pain 25 (5): 446–52. doi:10.1097/AJP.0b013e31819a6f65. PMID 19454881. 
  6. ^ Freeman M (October 2006). "Reconsidering the effects of monosodium glutamate: a literature review". J Am Acad Nurse Pract 18 (10): 482–6. doi:10.1111/j.1745-7599.2006.00160.x. PMID 16999713. 
  7. ^ Christine A. C. Wijman, Philip A. Wolf, Carlos S. Kase, Margaret Kelly-Hayes, Alexa S. Beiser (August 1998). "Migrainous Visual Accompaniments Are Not Rare in Late Life: the Framingham Study". Stroke (journal). 
  8. ^ "MIGRAINE IN PATIENTS WITH CLUSTER HEADACHE - EKBOM - 2005 - Headache: The Journal of Head and Face Pain - Wiley Online Library". 2005-06-23. Retrieved 2015-08-19. 

External links[edit]