- A migraine aura is a series of symptoms that last for 20-60 minutes before a migraine.
- Migraine auras come with different symptoms that can range from seeing flashes of light to feeling tingling or numbness in the face, hands, or body.
- People who experience migraine aura often have a better chance of heading off an oncoming migraine by taking medication beforehand.
- Visit Insider’s Health Reference library for more advice.
An estimated 25%-30% of people who suffer from migraines experience what are called migraine aura. A migraine aura is a series of symptoms that precede a migraine, so people who experience the aura know when a migraine is about to strike.
“It’s like when you see the clouds and you know it’s going to rain,” says Medhat Mikhael, MD, the medical director of the non-operative program at the Spine Health Center at MemorialCare Orange Coast Medical Center. “The aura is the clouds, and you know the migraine will follow.”
During a migraine aura, you might see flashes of light, experience blind spots or blurry vision, or feel a tingling sensation in your face or hands. Here’s more about what causes migraine aura, how to prevent them, and when to see a doctor for your condition.
What is migraine aura?
In the hour before the onset of a migraine headache, people who experience aura may deal with a range of symptoms that usually last for 20-60 minutes.
The most common type of aura is visual, Mikhael says. These symptoms may include:
- Seeing flashes of light, zig-zag lines, colored spots, or stars.
- Experiencing tunnel vision.
- Having blindspots or temporary blindness.
However, migraine aura are highly individualized and symptoms will vary from person to person. Some examples of other migraine aura symptoms involve:
- Tingling or numbness in the face, hands, or body.
- Speech problems like mumbling, slurring, or having difficulty finding the right word.
- Hearing sounds, known as auditory hallucinations.
It’s estimated that half of the people who get migraines have a family member who also experiences the condition, which likely means migraines, including ones with aura, are inherited. Scientists are still working to understand the genetic component of migraine aura.
What causes aura?
Researchers aren’t exactly sure what causes migraine aura, but studies indicate that auras originate in the cerebral cortex — the area of the brain that controls visual and other sensory input.
A 2018 study showed that people who experience migraine auras also had a physical depression in their cerebral structure — the layout of the cerebral cortex. That physical depression may be the reason for the visual and other sensory symptoms associated with aura, Mikhael says.
In rare cases, the aura can happen without a migraine. These cases are called a silent migraine, and they’re most common among people with a history of migraine aura. Most of the time, this is because the person was able to take medication to interrupt the migraine, Mikhael says.
How to prevent migraine with aura
The treatment for migraines with aura is the same as migraines without aura, Mikhael says. Although aura can be unpleasant and scary, it also gives people the opportunity to interrupt a migraine before the headache becomes severe.
Abortive migraine medications — including the classes of drugs called triptans and ergotamines — interrupt the process that causes a migraine, stopping the condition from progressing into a full-blown headache. Taking these medications upon the first sign of an aura makes them more likely to work, Mikhael says.
Over time, patients also learn what home remedies — like laying in a dark room and avoiding noise — can assist with symptoms until medication begins to work.
When to see a doctor
In most cases, the symptoms of aura are no more harmful than migraine without aura. If you’re experiencing migraine aura for the first time, talk to your doctor. They may want to ensure that you’re not suffering from conditions with similar symptoms, including seizures, vision changes, or stroke.
There are some potentially serious conditions associated with aura, as well. Anytime the aura lasts longer than an hour or is accompanied by changes in consciousness or alertness, you should seek medical help.
Hemiplegic migraine is a rare type of migraine that occurs with aura and usually runs within families. In addition to the aura symptoms listed above, people who experience hemiplegic migraines also experience weakness on one side of the body. Mikhael says typical migraine treatments can make a hemiplegic migraine worse, so speak to your doctor immediately if you think you may be experiencing one.
Another major concern is people who experience migraines with aura — especially women — are at increased risk of stroke. In fact, women who experience migraine aura are up to twice as likely to have a stroke compared to people who do not have migraines with aura.
Experiencing a migraine with aura — especially for the first time — can be jarring, or even frightening. However, aura can also serve as a warning bell to help patients ward off a more severe migraine.
Overall, with more research and improved pharmaceuticals to treat migraines with aura, they’re becoming easier to live with, Mikhael says. His colleagues who work in emergency rooms used to see migraine patients every day, he says. Now, that’s rare.
“Most of the preventive treatments we use these days and the abortive therapies keep the migraines under control,” says Mikhael.
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