What Is Kaleidoscope Vision?

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Have you ever heard the phrase “I saw stars before my eyes”, or maybe actually had your vision interrupted by fractures, stars or mists? These fleeting disturbances in vision may be a sign of another underlying condition.

Aptly named, this is a phenomenon called kaleidoscopic vision. It is common in migraine and diabetes patients. These are small bursts of distorted vision which may or may not be accompanied by a headache. It can include flashes of colour, reflective and fragmented vision along with flashes and stars in the field of view.

Kaleidoscopic vision is usually not a serious condition in itself, but as mentioned above it is usually an indicator of something more severe. Read on to know the causes, how it manifests itself and what you can do about it.

Overview

Kaleidoscope vision is a short-lived disturbance of vision or ocular distortion where one’s vision resembles the view inside a kaleidoscope: highly reflective and coloured with occasional mists or stars covering the field of view. This usually occurs in episodes. The condition is not dangerous and the episodes end fairly quickly, lasting a minute or two.

Causes of kaleidoscope vision

The main cause of kaleidoscopic vision is said to be ocular migraine. Ocular migraine, derived from the word “ocular” (anything to do with the eye) is a type of vision loss or visual distortion that is often accompanied by or happens before or after a migraine headache.1

Ocular migraine can refer to two possible diagnoses:

Migraine with aura

A migraine headache that leads to visual distortions, due to waves of activity travelling throughout the brain. The symptoms affect both eyes and can range from briefly lasting blind spots to flashes of light, zig-zag patterns and shimmering. This may all manifest together to give rise to kaleidoscopic vision. 25% of people who suffer from migraines suffer from such vision disturbances.2

Retinal migraine

A comparatively rarer and more serious condition that involves short durations of highly reduced eyesight or blindness. It usually affects one eye and can be an indicator of a more serious diagnosis.

While migraines are the main cause of kaleidoscopic vision, they may also be caused by eye injuries (retina damage), brain injuries, and the consumption of psychoactive substances like hallucinogenic drugs (for example LSD). Strokes or traumatic brain injury can also result in flashes of kaleidoscopic vision. It is a symptom and not a diagnosable condition. Hence, any condition that interferes with vision has the potential to cause effects similar to kaleidoscope vision.

Signs and symptoms of kaleidoscope vision

You may be suffering from kaleidoscope vision if you suffer from visual disturbances that satisfy any one or a few of the below criteria:

  • Sudden flashes of light 
  • Fractured and “reflective” vision, as if one were looking through a kaleidoscope 
  • Unclear field of view with coloured mists 
  • Shiny or blurry images 
  • Kaleidoscope vision has also been described as rainbow or “pixelated” vision where the world seems fragmented, quite like pixel art
  • Blind spots 
  • Shimmering or stars

These disturbances may or may not be accompanied by a migraine or headache.3

Management and treatment for kaleidoscope vision

Kaleidoscopic vision is usually the result of another underlying diagnosis. Therefore, the condition can only be treated by effectively diagnosing and treating the underlying problem. The modality of treatment may be different depending on the root cause of the visual distortion. 

If the distortions are being caused by eye misalignment, an optometrist (a medical professional treating conditions relating to the eyes) can prescribe appropriate prescription glasses or contact lenses to manage the condition.

Diabetes patients have reported kaleidoscope vision as well, and preventing sudden dips and rises in blood sugar levels for such patients can go a long way in managing this symptom.

Avoiding migraine triggers if the condition is accompanied by headaches can form part of symptom management as well. Medications affecting migraine symptoms can help with ocular disturbances.

For kaleidoscopic vision stemming from the brain and injuries involving the optic nerve, gradual recovery may reduce and eliminate the symptoms.

It is not advised for anyone suffering from kaleidoscope vision to drive while experiencing the symptoms or engage in activities involving heavy machinery. Ideally, they should put aside the equipment or park their car while the symptoms last.4

FAQs

How can I prevent kaleidoscope vision? 

One can make a conscious effort to prevent kaleidoscope vision if they suffer from any underlying conditions that lead to it (migraines, diabetes, strokes or traumatic brain injury). The best method to prevent kaleidoscope vision and prevent any other ocular distortions is to maintain these conditions healthily. In short, avoiding migraine triggers, stabilising blood sugar levels and other precautionary steps can help. A balanced diet always helps by preventing any vitamin deficiencies. Avoiding excessive eye strain like strobe lights is also helpful. 

How common is kaleidoscope vision?

As kaleidoscope vision is usually not a condition serious enough to call for a diagnosis of its own, and is often a symptom or indicator of a bigger disease like migraine or stroke, prevalence statistics are difficult to determine with certainty. However, as mentioned earlier, more than 25% of cases of migraine often lead to ocular disturbances that constitute kaleidoscope vision.

Who is at risk of kaleidoscope vision?

People with a history of conditions like migraine, diabetes or a risk of stroke are most susceptible to kaleidoscope vision. Damage to the optic nerve or eye misalignment may also be a risk factor.

When should I see a doctor?

You should visit an optometrist as soon as possible if you face one or more incidents of vision blurring or the characteristic “fractured” prism-like vision as described here.  

Summary

Kaleidoscope vision, as the name suggests, is a type of ocular distortion where the vision looks fractured, reflective, and multi-coloured as if a person were looking out of a kaleidoscope. It is usually a by-product of underlying conditions like migraine (specifically aura migraine, and rarely retinal migraine), diabetes, or stroke. These visual disturbances usually last for a short period of time and may occur in one, or both eyes. Signs and symptoms include the following characteristics in short bursts: “starry” or “pixelated” vision, a glass-like fractured field of view, coloured mists or shimmers in vision, or any other coloured defects that are short-lived and gradually go away. It is usually accompanied by a headache or migraine. As kaleidoscope vision can result from a number of unrelated conditions, diagnosing the actual underlying cause is the key to treatment and management. Painkillers and drugs treating migraines have been found to have the ability to reduce these visual distortions. One is not advised to drive or operate heavy machinery while an episode of kaleidoscope vision is occurring, and if you think you are experiencing this condition, the recommended thing to do is to visit an optometrist as soon as possible.

References

  1. Mayo Clinic [Internet]. [cited 2023 Jul 6]. Don’t confuse a serious condition with something minor. Available from: https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/migraine-headache/expert-answers/ocular-migraine/faq-20058113
  2. russ. Kaleidoscope vision [Internet]. Optometrists.org. [cited 2023 Jul 6]. Available from: https://www.optometrists.org/vision-therapy/neuro-optometry/vision-and-brain-injuries/traumatic-brain-injury-and-neuro-optometry/kaleidoscope-vision/
  3. Cleveland Clinic [Internet]. [cited 2023 Jul 6]. Kaleidoscope vision: what it is, causes & treatment. Available from: https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/symptoms/24761-kaleidoscope-vision
  4. Kaleidoscope vision: causes, symptoms & treatment options [Internet]. MyVision.org. [cited 2023 Jul 6]. Available from: https://myvision.org/eye-conditions/kaleidoscope-vision/

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This content is purely informational and isn’t medical guidance. It shouldn’t replace professional medical counsel. Always consult your physician regarding treatment risks and benefits. See our editorial standards for more details.

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Vishesh Asnani

MSc. Biotechnology with Business Enterprise- University of Leeds, United Kingdom

Vishesh is a professional in the Biotechnology industry and is well acquainted with research, leadership and management roles.

He is an experienced writer and editor for the healthcare sector with a particular interest in Molecular Biology, Genetics and Drug Development. His body of work is largely focused on making healthcare research accessible to the general population.

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