Understanding Migraine Aura

Migraine Symptoms | 5 Min. Read
Author: Ctrl M Health Migraine Team
Reviewed by: Ctrl M Health Medical Directors

Summary

  • Migraine aura is a sensory warning symptom that a migraine attack has started. It which typically starts before the headache begins, but can also occur with the headache.
  • Visual aura is most common, but aura can also have physical and mental symptoms, including numbness, weakness, abnormal perception, and speech difficulty.
  • 25 to 30 percent of people with migraine experience aura.
  • Migraine with and without aura is usually treated using the same methods.
  • If you have unusual aura symptoms (inability to speak, weakness on one side of the body, trouble seeing), see your doctor to ensure it’s not a sign of a different condition (i.e., stroke, brain tumor, retinal tear).

Full Article

If you have ever experienced the twilight zone of migraine aura, you know how odd and unsettling it can feel. Aura is a sensory disturbance that comes in many forms. Some people may experience it as a swarm of dazzling lights in one eye. Others may be hit with intense vertigo; others slur their words. Some describe it as a full-scale assault on the senses, including disorienting changes in perception and tunnel vision migraine aura.

No matter how you might experience aura, it’s typically a brief, temporary state — lasting five to 30 minutes — signaling that a migraine attack has begun. Some people have “aura-only migraine,” in which they typically have no headache. Either way, the phenomenon of aura is more common than you might think. Between 25 to 30 percent of people with migraine experience aura.

A Wide Range of Aura Symptoms

Migraine aura symptoms fall into different types, with many people having symptoms of more than one type.Woman of color with brown curly hair holds the bridge of her nose with both hands in pain from migraine aura.

    • Visual aura. Seeing bright spots, shimmering lights, zig zags, geometric designs and stars, fortification spectrum (called this because its pattern looks like a jagged line thought to resemble a medieval town wall), blank spots, tunnel vision.
    • Sensory aura. Changes in sensation, tingling, and numbness, often beginning near the lips or the tongue on one side or with one hand.
    • Auditory aura. Hearing noises, ringing in the ears (tinnitus), or music.
    • Brainstem aura. Severe incoordination, temporary blindness, double vision, dizziness, vertigo, slurred speech, tinnitus, changes in level of consciousness, fainting.
    • Dysphasic aura. Characterized by speech and language problems.
    • Alice-in-Wonderland (metamorphopsia) aura. Your perception of yourself, perspective, and surroundings become distorted. Like Alice, you may feel larger or smaller, or a part of your body might feel larger or smaller. Your surroundings may seem further or closer than they really are.
    • Hemiplegic (motor) aura. Weakness in the limbs and/or one side of the face.

What Causes Migraine Aura?

Changes in the brain produce this disorienting neurological event. Research suggests that aura occurs when a wave of altered electrical activity moves across the surface of the brain’s cortex, beginning at the back of the brain, which controls vision. This is likely why visual aura is the most common type. This wave of electrical activity causes temporary changes in the blood flow and chemicals in the brain cells, and is known as cortical spreading depression (CSD). It’s like an ocean wave rolling through the brain’s operating systems, affecting each as it moves through.

The spread of CSD is the reason aura symptoms seem to blossom over several minutes. For example, people frequently describe scotoma (blind spots in the visual field) getting bigger, or brighter, or more elaborate. When migraine aura consists of multiple symptoms, it almost always begins with visual symptoms, followed by numbness and tingling symptoms, because the next part of the brain to be affected by this electrical wave is the part that controls the sense of touch. Weakness or loss of speech can follow.

    • Safety note: Are migraine auras dangerous? Not in and of themselves. But having migraine auras may increase your lifetime risk for stroke. Certain precautions are recommended to reduce stroke risks, including screenings for high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes, and following a physician’s recommendations to treat any of these conditions. Smoking is another high-risk behavior for potential stroke. Further, those who experience aura may not want to take oral estrogen contraceptive pills, since that also is associated with the risk of stroke. Consult your healthcare provider.

How to Treat Migraine Aura

If you experience migraine aura, it’s important to consult a doctor. Here’s why:

      • Though migraine aura is common and not dangerous, anyone with unusual migraine aura symptoms (such as inability to speak, sudden weakness on one side of the body, trouble seeing) or aura that appears for the first time in later life should see their doctor to ensure it is not a sign of a different condition (i.e., a stroke, brain tumor, retinal tear).
      • Your doctor can work with you to come up with a migraine treatment plan.

Whether you have migraine with or without aura, treatment is typically the same:

    • Preventives. These are medications you take consistently to reduce the frequency of migraine headaches. Some preventive medications are favored for migraine aura, including lamotrigine (Lamictal), an anti-seizure medication found in studies to be effective for severe aura. 
    • Abortives (medicines that stop a migraine attack). Both over-the-counter and prescription medications are also used to treat migraine attacks with aura.

Safety measures: Because the migraine aura experience has the potential for balance disturbances, you’ll want to sit or lie down to reduce the risk of falling. If you are driving, pull over till the aura passes.

It’s important to know your migraine aura symptoms and recognize them when they appear. The earlier you treat a migraine attack, the more effective the treatment will be. So when aura symptoms arrive, use it as a cue to jump into action with your treatment plan. That early intervention can provide you with faster and more complete relief — so that you can get back to your life already in progress.

 

Knowledge is crucial in your journey to better health with migraine. Learn even more with the Ctrl M Health app.

Take the next step to better health

© 2020 Ctrl M Health. All rights reserved.

Welcome to the 

Knowledge Portal

Inform and empower yourself with a trusted library of articles on

headache and migraine.

Sign up for free access

Free app trial:

Improve your quality of life. Try 1 month for free.