Scintillating scotoma

Scintillating scotoma is a common visual aura that was first described by 19th-century physician Hubert Airy (1838–1903). It may precede a migraine headache, but can also occur acephalgically (without headache). It is often confused with retinal migraine, which originates in the eyeball or socket.

Scintillating scotoma
Other namesVisual migraine[1]
Example of a scintillating scotoma, as may be caused by cortical spreading depression

Signs and symptoms

An artist's depiction of a scintillating scotoma with a bilateral arc.

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. It typically affects both eyes, as it is not a problem specific to one eye. 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.

In teichopsia, migraine sufferers see patterns in the shape of the walls of a star fort.

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.[2] It also can resemble the dazzle camouflage patterns used on ships in World War I. 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.[3] This is a different disease from retinal migraine, which is monocular (only one eye).[4]

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.

Animated depictions


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.[5] While monosodium glutamate (MSG) is frequently reported as a dietary trigger,[6] scientific studies do not support this claim.[7]

The Framingham Heart Study, published in 1998, surveyed 5,070 people between ages 3062 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.[8]


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.[2] Many migraine sufferers change from scintillating scotoma as a prodrome to migraine to scintillating scotoma without migraine. Typically the scotoma resolves spontaneously within the stated time frame, leaving no subsequent symptoms, though some report fatigue, nausea, and dizziness as sequelae.[9]


The British physician John Fothergill described the condition in the 18th century and called it fortification spectrum.[10] The British physician Hubert Airy coined the term scintillating scotoma for it by 1870; he derived it from the Latin scintilla "spark" and the Ancient Greek skotos "darkness".[11] Other terms for the condition include flittering scotoma, fortification figure, fortification of Vauban, geometrical spectrum, herringbone, Norman arch, teichopsia,[12] and telehopsia.[10]

See also


  1. Prasad, Sashank. "Visual Migraine" (PDF). Brigham and Women's Hospital. Harvard Medical School. Retrieved 4 October 2016.
  2. "". Retrieved 24 June 2015.
  3. "". Retrieved 24 June 2015.
  4. Grosberg, Brian M.; Solomon, Seymour; Lipton, Richard B. (2005). "Retinal migraine". Current Pain and Headache Reports. 9 (4): 268–271. doi:10.1007/s11916-005-0035-2.
  5. Archived October 20, 2012, at the Wayback Machine
  6. 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. CiteSeerX doi:10.1097/AJP.0b013e31819a6f65. PMID 19454881.
  7. 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.
  8. 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. 29 (8): 1539–1543. doi:10.1161/01.STR.29.8.1539. PMID 9707189.
  9. Ekbom, Karl (2005-06-23). "Migraine in Patients with Cluster Headache". Headache: The Journal of Head and Face Pain. 14 (2): 69–72. doi:10.1111/j.1526-4610.1974.hed1402069.x.
  10. Blom 2009, pp. 199.
  11. Blom 2009, p. 464.
  12. Blom 2009, pp. 463–464.

Works cited

External resources

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