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Kaleidoscope vision: Causes, treatment and when to see an eye doctor

kaleidoscope vision effect

Kaleidoscope vision occurs at the edge of your field of view: Bright lights sparkle; vivid colors swirl. These visual quirks may sound magical but can actually be alarming, especially if you’re trying to read or drive to work. It’s only natural to wonder if something’s gone haywire with your eyesight.   

Most of the time, kaleidoscope vision is just a warning sign that a migraine is coming on. But it can also be a sign of other issues, some of them serious. When your vision changes suddenly, it’s definitely time to pay attention and, in some cases, seek medical attention. 

What does kaleidoscope vision look like? 

Remember the kaleidoscopes you played with as a child? Most kids loved playing with these little hand-held telescopes — gazing through the eyepiece in the narrow end, rotating the wide end by hand and witnessing a dynamic world of vibrant wonders within. 

The shimmering, prismatic effect of these childhood toys inspires the term “kaleidoscope vision.” It doesn’t look exactly like peering into a kaleidoscope, but it does create a sensation of tints, shapes and sparkles — often in motion — that are visually similar.

What’s causing kaleidoscope vision?

Kaleidoscope vision may happen in one or both eyes. But what’s actually going on? The explanation starts in the structures of the human vision system, which consists of the eyeball (cornea, lens and retina), optic nerve and vision centers in the brain. 

When this system works properly, the cornea and lens bend light and project it onto the retina, whose light-sensitive nerves translate light waves into visual information that travels over the optic nerve to the brain’s vision-processing centers. 

Blood vessels carry nutrients and oxygen to the eyes and the brain. Changes in flow of blood through the vision system can influence the retina’s ability to capture light waves and the brain’s ability to transform light waves into eyesight

This is where the connection with migraines comes in. Migraines are throbbing headaches that can last up to three days, usually because of changes in brain chemistry that affect blood flow. 

Factors like stress and changing body hormones can trigger a migraine, which generates pressure throughout the brain, including the visual centers. 

One result of this pressure is kaleidoscope vision, which usually occurs in the two primary varieties of migraine: 

  • Migraine auras. A migraine aura is a collection of symptoms that happen before a migraine strikes. Migraine auras are considered benign because they don’t inflict pain. Kaleidoscope vision often occurs during these auras.  

  • Ocular migraines. While most migraines strike the brain, an ocular migraine results from reduced blood flow in the retina and therefore occurs in the eyes. The symptoms of ocular migraines, including kaleidoscope vision, usually fade within an hour.  

Kaleidoscope vision is related to a scotoma, a blind spot in the field of vision. Scotomas are among the most common visual symptoms of migraines.  

What else can kaleidoscope vision be a sign of?

Migraines often have genetic origins. If your mom, dad or siblings get them, you may, too. This is an important distinction because if you’ve never had migraines and they don’t run in your family, then kaleidoscope vision could be a warning sign you cannot afford to ignore. 

For instance, a transient ischemic attack (TIA), also known as a mini-stroke, may cause kaleidoscope vision. TIAs are the result of blockages in the blood vessels of the brain. They usually occur for a minute or two and then seem to go away. But they are anything but harmless. 

Often, TIAs mean a real stroke — which can cause paralysis or even death — is about to happen. 

Migraines also have a relationship with multiple sclerosis (MS), though scientists have not determined whether migraines can predict someone may develop MS. 

SEE RELATED: Is eye twitching a sign of stroke?

How is kaleidoscope vision treated? 

Kaleidoscope vision is not an illness or condition but, rather, a symptom of an underlying problem that must be treated. 

Thus, migraine treatments and therapies are often the best way to deal with kaleidoscope vision. For starters, you need to figure out what set your migraine in motion. 

Many people who experience recurring migraines create diaries to document everything they do before a migraine hits. Then they work on avoiding triggers such as: 

  • Stress and anxiety

  • Shifts in sleep patterns

  • Cigarette smoke and/or tobacco products

  • Dehydration

  • Fluctuations in hormone levels

  • Light sources, such as fluorescent and flickering lights

  • Loud or startling noises

  • Powerful scents from perfumes, chemicals, gasoline, etc. 

  • Strenuous exercise

  • Extreme heat, storms and other weather changes

Consuming too much migraine medication may also trigger an attack. Plus, many types of food and beverages seem to play a role, including: 

  • Beer, wine and hard liquor 

  • Artificial sweeteners

  • Dairy products like aged cheeses

  • Caffeine

  • Chocolate

  • Cured, smoked or processed meats

  • Foods with monosodium glutamate (MSG)

  • Pickles or pickled products

  • Yeasts

In addition to avoiding migraine triggers, migraine medications (taken conservatively) offer an approach to dealing with kaleidoscope vision. These meds either prevent an attack or treat one after it’s started.  

Migraine-prevention drugs require a prescription and are typically taken daily. Varieties include anticonvulsants, ACE inhibitors, beta blockers and calcium channel blockers. 

Migraine treatment medications include familiar over-the-counter analgesics like Tylenol and Advil. Some meds work with symptoms like nausea, while others target specific nerves that trigger migraine attacks. 

Because kaleidoscope vision varies widely from one person to the next, your treatment will depend on your doctor’s diagnosis. 

When to see an eye doctor about kaleidoscope vision

Any changes to your vision should be reported to your eye doctor as soon as possible. If you already suffer from migraines, then kaleidoscope vision may be a new warning sign. 

If you don’t get migraines and they’re uncommon in your family, you should call your doctor’s office right away or even 9-1-1 and describe your symptoms. If you’re having a mini-stroke, you need to seek medical attention right away.

What is a TIA? American Stroke Association. December 2018.

Migraine and multiple sclerosis: Connection or coincidence? Neurology Advisor. January 2018.

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