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‘Visual snow’ – a disorder distinct from persistent migraine aura

Christoph J. Schankin, Farooq H. Maniyar, Kathleen B. Digre, Peter J. Goadsby
DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/brain/awu050 1419-1428 First published online: 18 March 2014

Summary

Patients with ‘visual snow’ report continuous tiny dots in the entire visual field similar to the noise of an analogue television. As they frequently have migraine as a comorbidity with ophthalmological, neurological and radiological studies being normal, they are offered various diagnoses, including persistent migraine aura, post-hallucinogen flashback, or psychogenic disorder. Our aim was to study patients with ‘visual snow’ to characterize the phenotype. A three-step approach was followed: (i) a chart review of patients referred to us identified 22 patients with ‘visual snow’. Fifteen had additional visual symptoms, and 20 patients had comorbid migraine, five with aura; (ii) to identify systematically additional visual symptoms, an internet survey (n = 275) of self-assessed ‘visual snow’ subjects done by Eye On Vision Foundation was analysed. In two random samples from 235 complete data sets, the same eight additional visual symptoms were present in >33% of patients: palinopsia (trailing and afterimages), entoptic phenomena (floaters, blue field entoptic phenomenon, spontaneous photopsia, self-light of the eye), photophobia, and nyctalopia (impaired night vision); and (iii) a prospective semi-structured telephone interview in a further 142 patients identified 78 (41 female) with confirmed ‘visual snow’ and normal ophthalmological exams. Of these, 72 had at least three of the additional visual symptoms from step (ii). One-quarter of patients had ‘visual snow’ as long as they could remember, whereas for the others the mean age of onset was 21 ± 9 years. Thirty-two patients had constant visual symptoms, whereas the remainder experienced either progressive or stepwise worsening. Headache was the most frequent symptom associated with the beginning or a worsening of the visual disturbance (36%), whereas migraine aura (seven patients) and consumption of illicit drugs (five, no hallucinogens) were rare. Migraine (59%), migraine with aura (27%), anxiety and depression were common comorbidities over time. Eight patients had first degree relatives with visual snow. Clinical investigations were not contributory. Only a few treatment trials have been successful in individual patients. Our data suggest that ‘visual snow’ is a unique visual disturbance clinically distinct from migraine aura that can be disabling for patients. Migraine is a common concomitant although standard migraine treatments are often unhelpful. ‘Visual snow’ should be considered a distinct disorder and systematic studies of its clinical features, biology and treatment responses need to be commenced to begin to understand what has been an almost completely ignored problem.

  • visual snow
  • persistent migraine aura
  • flashback
  • migraine
  • positive persistent visual disturbance
  • Abbreviation
    ICHD
    International Classification of Headache Disorders
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