Ever see spots or dots? Here's all you need to know about Visual Snow Syndrome

Many of us are familiar with eye 'floaters' or see odd dots or specks from time to time (ever stood up too quickly and been greeted by a load of silver sparkles? yeah, that) but what about if your vision is constantly interrupted by static? Or you experience visual disturbances, that look like an old school TV that hasn't been tuned properly?

Understandably this may be cause for concern, and one possible explanation for it, according to eyesight experts All About Vision's leading Medical Reviewer, Dr. Shane Kannarr, could be something known as Visual Snow Syndrome.

The condition, although vision-related, is actually neurological and is thought to impact up to 2% of the population. Some have also linked it to ADHD or anxiety, which is known to have various physical manifestations within the body, too.

Here, Dr Kannarr explains all you need to know about the little known condition:

What is Visual Snow Syndrome?

"Visual snow syndrome is a crippling neurological condition which clouds people’s vision with a thick, persistent haze of grainy dots," Dr Kannarr notes. "These dots are often described as what static looks like on an older television. Sufferers tend to see flashing lights, flickering dots and static which affects the way they see. There’s no relief either, not even when they close their eyes, and will not vary with the background or image a person is focusing on."

He adds that this differs from the sort of dots or specks that some people experience might when looking at a light background, such as a white wall or blue sky. "These dots or specks are caused by vitreous floaters, and are a completely normal change to the vitreous; a gel-like fluid which fills up our eyes. They won’t last for that long and won’t sit in your vision at all times unlike visual snow does."

While visual snow in itself is an exceedingly rare condition, advanced cases are even more so.

What are the symptoms of Visual Snow Syndrome?

Diagnosis is marked by dots in the field of vision that are persistent for at least three months, along with at least two other symptoms. "The main symptoms to look out for are 'after images', excessive floaters, trouble with night vision, and in some cases photophobia - a condition where your eyes are very sensitive to light, and the sun or bright indoor light can be uncomfortable or even painful," says Dr Kannarr.

Visual Snow Syndrome can also cause many other debilitating non-visual symptoms like muscular pain, tinnitus and symptoms of anxiety or depression.

Is there a cure or treatment for visual snow?

Visual snow is currently a diagnosis of exclusion and all other causes, including migraines with aura and vitreal and/or retinal changes, must be ruled out with proper testing. "Visual snow is based on symptoms as current testing will not show changes to anatomy and physiology of the patient," the eyesight expert clarifies.

"More recently Magnetic Encephalography has been able to show differences between patients with migraines, control or asymptomatic patients and those with visual snow."

Photo credit: JGI/Jamie Grill/Blend Images - Getty Images
Photo credit: JGI/Jamie Grill/Blend Images - Getty Images

Is visual snow linked to any other conditions?

Although there's still little research into visual snow, at present up to two-thirds of sufferers are also thought to experience migraines. "Visual snow has been loosely associated with stress, anxiety, and use of hallucinogenic drugs, too – interestingly, even if the use of drugs is in the distant past," adds Dr Kannarr, who notes tinnitus, lethargy, headaches and irritability are also commonly cited by Visual Snow Syndrome sufferers.

"The condition has also been referred to as 'eye tinnitus', and there are links between the two conditions," he observes. "When someone has tinnitus, they hear things that others can’t while someone with visual snow sees things that others can’t see."

Diagnosis typically occurs in the late teens to early twenties and some patients report developing develop this condition after a head trauma, or a very significant infection.

What can you do to treat or cure visual snow?

Sadly, at present there is no cure for visual snow but patients are encouraged to pursue a treatment plan that will hopefully minimise their symptoms and the impact the disorder has on daily activities.

"This can include medications like antidepressants and nerve pain medication, therapy and vision therapy. These patients should be treated with a medical team including a neurologist, optometrist, and psychologist," says Dr Kannarr, who says it's best to raise any Visual Snow Syndrome concerns with a professional as quickly as possible to avoid any irreversible damage.

Some members on Visual Snow Syndrome forums say that trying to drive their focus away from the distractions to their vision, by keeping busy or deliberately switching their thoughts to something else, has had a positive impact too. (And similarly, obsessing over it does the opposite and can exacerbate symptoms).

It's also thought that mild lifestyle changes, such as improving your overall health, reducing screen time, keeping fit, eating a healthy diet and prioritising a good night’s sleep can be beneficial.

"You could also try wearing tinted glasses," Dr Kannarr suggests. "Some experts have suggested that shading their eyes from bright light can reduce the intensity of the condition. Managing stress and anxiety through mindfulness techniques such as yoga, breathing exercises and meditation can also help improve symptoms."

This article is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice or diagnosis. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

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