Sight loss: Coping with vision disturbance

When Victoria Summerley suddenly lost her sight, she was terrified. But she found her condition was far from rare
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Indy Lifestyle Online

When it happened, I thought I was dying, or was about to go blind. I was at work, here in the office, and The Independent was just gearing up to go to press. It was about 6.45pm - a busy time. I can remember thinking that I suddenly felt as if I'd been blinded by a bright light, but although I had the blinded sensation, I didn't recall seeing a light. I mentally shook this off and tried to get on with my work, focusing on the computer screen. But it seemed as if wherever I tried to focus there was a small blurred circle, right at the point I was concentrating on, that prevented me from being able to read.

I decided to walk away from the screen and rest my eyes for five minutes, gazing out through our office windows at Canary Wharf across the dock in an attempt to change my focal length. I could still see the small blurred circle - about the size of a 5p coin - but, worried about the impending deadlines, I tried to convince myself that it was slowly disappearing. After a few minutes, I decided to go back to my desk.

The minute I looked at the computer screen, the blurred circle sprang to the size of a rugby ball, a jagged oval of distortion that completely blocked my vision. It was terrifying. As my colleagues looked on, bemused, I rushed out of the office and sought refuge in the loo. I've worked in Fleet Street for more than 20 years, so I'm not prone to bursting into tears in the office, but on this occasion I wept with sheer fright. I had horrible visions of having to come to terms with total blindness; of never being able to see my children again.

By this time the visual disturbance was constant and complete. If you can imagine looking at a stretch of water with the ripples sparkling in the sun, it was a bit like that. I could see, but everything seemed to be behind a veil of shimmering light. I decided the only thing I could do was to go home. By the time I got there - after a 45-minute journey by train and Tube - I was fine.

The next morning, I went straight to my GP and described the experience to her just as I've related it here. "That was a brilliantly observed account," she said, "of a visual migraine." A visual migraine? What the hell was that? I hadn't even had a headache.

The GP asked me if I'd ever had migraines before. I said I had, when I was a child, but they were the classic pain-over-one-eye numbers. They followed a strict pattern: they always made me physically sick, I couldn't bear light, and the only way to cure them was to lie down in a dark room and go to sleep.

Cruelly, they always came on when some treat was in progress - a day at the zoo, or a trip to the theatre. Always something that I was excited about. I'd had the last one when I was 16 - brought on by going with some friends to see the great Spanish guitar virtuoso Andres Segovia.

The GP explained that with a visual migraine, you very often don't get a headache. Not only that, but as I had found, they disappear almost as quickly as they appear. "You'll find they're very common," she said, a statement I found difficult to believe until I arrived in the office later that morning. Practically the first colleague I bumped into, as I grabbed a cup of tea from the canteen, told me that she had visual migraines regularly.

In fact, a straw poll of colleagues revealed that The Independent, at least, seems to be split into visual-migraine haves and have-nots, the haves nodding sympathetically as I related my experience and the have-nots intrigued by what I'm sure they saw as a bizarre affliction.

So what is a visual migraine? The textbook description says it is a temporary visual disturbance caused by a vascular spasm in the brain, similar to the conventional migraine but without the headache because it affects a different part of the brain. In the case of a visual, or ocular, migraine, the spasm results in decreased blood flow to the occipital cortex, the bit of the brain that deals with vision.

The rippling, or shimmering, light that I saw, and the distorted vision are classic symptoms (the small blurred area is known as a positive scotoma, meaning blind spot). And because they don't result in a disabling headache, visual migraines are not usually treated.

What causes them? Some sufferers believe that the usual migraine triggers can set them off, such as chocolate (I'm ashamed to admit that I'd just wolfed a Yorkie bar when I had my attack), cheese or red wine. The medical view, however, is that life isn't so simple and what may be a trigger for one person can leave another unaffected.

Visual migraines, in particular, are associated with stress and fatigue and/or hormonal changes. They're not dangerous and generally do not indicate any underlying serious medical problem, though you should consult your GP if you experience any visual disturbance in order to rule out other causes.

According to my optician, Karen Lockyer, muscle tension in the neck and shoulders is a common contributory factor, since it constricts the blood supply. Anyone with a history of this sort of problem who works hunched over a computer, especially under pressure, is a prime candidate for a visual migraine in her view.

Now I know what it is, if I ever have another one, I'll know to go and sit down quietly somewhere until it goes away instead of rushing off to howl in the loo. And I'm definitely not eating any more Yorkie bars.