To many people who don’t suffer from migraine, the word migraine simply means a bad headache. Migraine sufferers know different. It is a complex disorder with many associated symptoms ranging from distressing to debilitating. As with all aspects of migraine, the aura is often misunderstood and minimized by those who have never experienced it.
For those patients who are experiencing migraine aura for the first time, it can be particularly alarming.
Who Gets Migraine Aura?
It is thought that roughly one in five people who suffer from migraine experienced some kind of aura. Most sufferers experience migraine aura during or just after the prodromal stage, during which other early warning signs also present themselves. There is some debate in the medical profession as to what causes it, with the most recent explanations indicating that excited brain cells lead to brain chemistry changes, which then affect perceptions and senses.
Aura can come on very quickly and without warning, although over time the sufferers can identify certain triggers when they look back on the experience. Typically, they last up to an hour although in certain circumstances auras can last longer, extending to several days, weeks and in some cases even months. Headache pain generally follows the aura, although this isn’t an absolute rule as is possible to have aura without pain, or headache without aura. Some people also have pain and aura together, or find aura-type symptoms occur afterwards, as the migraine episode subsides.
Types of Aura
The most common type of migraine aura is visual. Sufferers may experience blind spots in one or both eyes, zigzag flashing lights or a sparkling light effect around the edges of their vision. Geometric shapes or other unusual visual disturbances are also common, and these can be severe enough to make normal activity difficult.
The sensory aura is another type, with sufferers experiencing pins and needles or numbness in the arms or legs, moving to the upper back and extending over the face and neck. Extreme sensitivity to touch, especially around the forehead or on the scalp is another common sensation although, strictly speaking, this is not classed as aura but is rather part of the migraine itself.
Some sufferers also report difficulties with speaking. It can be hard to think logically, they can have trouble making sentences or experience slurred speech or stuttering. This aura manifestation can be confused with the onset of a stroke, but it is relatively rare for a migraine aura to lead to stroke.
Migraine aura can affect the sense of smell, with some sufferers detecting smells that are not actually there.
There are no specific treatments for migraine aura, although if auras occur regularly your doctor may prescribe migraine preventative medication, which can reduce the frequency of migraine episodes.
Anti-convulsant drugs may be helpful if auras are persistent or extremely severe. Some people, for instance, experience all the types of aura together, including vertigo, numbness, tingling and visual disturbances.
When their auras symptoms become overwhelming, sufferers can sometimes spend as long a time worrying about them as they do coping with them, and for these people seeing a psychologist can help put the symptoms into perspective.
Adopting certain lifestyle strategies can also help and these include:
- Regular exercise and fresh air. Whilst not a cure or preventative measure, the overall sense of well-being and improved health brought about by regular exercise is beneficial.
- Meditation. Learning to meditate can help to reduce stress levels and promote a calmer demeanor. Stress is a common migraine trigger.
- Understanding triggers. A common trigger to aura visual disturbances is bright flashing light (such as sunlight glinting through trees or between buildings). Simple precautionary measures such as wearing or carrying sunglasses can help with avoiding this trigger.
Should You See a Doctor?
Although migraine auras can be frightening while they are happening, it’s important to realize they rarely have a lasting effect and will subside without treatment.
Discussion of aura symptoms should be a natural part of all your migraine consultations with your doctor, and he or she will discuss coping strategies or medication, and reassure you that the strange symptoms you’re experiencing will not result in permanent damage.
Changes in your migraine aura patterns should be reported to your doctor, just as you would report any other changes in your symptoms or general health.
As an early warning sign, auras can be quite useful since some sufferers find that by taking medication during the aura phase, they can avoid the actual headache pain. As you come to understand your migraine pattern better, the aura phase will seem less alarming even though, at first, it can be a frightening experience.