Living With Migraine Aura…


I began experiencing migraine auras about 4 years ago, though I’ve suffered the migraine headaches since childhood.

The headaches are always intense, very painful, and debilitating. Most often, I become nauseous and weak from the attacks.

When I experienced my 1st migraine aura, I had no idea what was happening. I was watching a movie, when I began to notice that I couldn’t see part of the screen. When I closed my eyes, I could see bright, squiggly zig zags of color, vibrating, and feeling intense pressure in my eyes and head. Then the colored lights expanded, covering my entire field of vision, leaving me temporarily blind.

My doctor was of little help, stating that it was probably just eye strain. So after the 3rd episode, I made an appointment with the eye doctor.

As I described my symptoms, he knew right away what it was, relieving me of the fear that it might be a tumor or some unknown eye disease. He also said that folks that experience these auras are generally of high intelligence, though I’m not sure there is any scientific proof of that. But it still made me feel less anxious.

As a writer, these auras make my job very challenging at times. Since I lose my vision for a time, I am forced to take unwanted breaks. And not knowing what the duration will be makes scheduling tasks a little tricky too. I’ve had them last for 10 minutes to over an hour.

It also is a factor in my ability to drive. (Thankfully, it’s only happened twice when I was driving.) Since I can feel an oncoming episode, I have between 5 to 10 minutes to pull over and park. From there, I just have to wait it out until the episode passes. Once I am sure it is over, then I can proceed as normal.

What is a migraine aura?

Scientists believe an aura is a visual arc of scintillating, shining spots or shapes which begin in a small area of your central vision and gradually expands across the entire field of vision. This movement across the visual field is attributed to a cortical spreading depression (CSD), a wave of electrically excitable neurons and their surrounding cells depolarizing. The cells which are normally negatively charged become positively charged. Neuroimaging studies show some evidence that suggest CSD leads to a temporary decrease in blood supply to certain areas in the brain. The lack of blood supply and the electrical disruptions may account for the wide and varied range of symptoms.

The episodes generally last from 5 to 60 minutes, with varying degrees of intensity. For those who experience migraine aura, it often signals an unmistakable warning of an impending migraine attack.

4 types of migraine with aura:

  • Migraine with typical aura – This occurs when an aura has visual, sensory or language symptoms.
  • Migraine with brainstem aura – This type must include at least 2: slurred speech; vertigo; tinnitus (ringing in the ears); hearing disruption or impairment; double vision; decreased control over bodily movements; decreased level of consciousness.
  • Hemiplegic migraine – Distinguished by a single characteristic which is motor weakness, patients will experience an aura which may also include visual, sensory or language symptoms.
  • Retinal migraine – An aura which occurs in one eye with or without head pain.

The types I experience are primarily typical aura, though I have also experienced brainstem aura as well. My symptoms of the aura phase have included:

  • Colored spots
  • Sparkles
  • Stars
  • Flashing lights
  • Tunnel vision
  • Vibrating visual field
  • Sensitivity to light
  • Curved zig zag pattern of bright colors (these start off to the side of my field of vision, then slowly expand until they cover the entire field)
  • Temporary blindness
  • Vertigo
  • Tinnitus
  • Muscle weakness

The Most Dangerous Aspect

Migraine aura is perhaps the most dangerous part of a migraine attack for two reasons.

#1 – The restriction of blood supply to brain cells can potentially lead to the damage or death of these cells. Reports indicate nonspecific white matter lesions in the scans of those with migraine with aura are common. Those with migraine with aura have a higher likelihood of stroke than the general population. (When damage or death does occur to brain tissue due to reduced blood flow it is called an ischaemic stroke.)

#2 – A mini-stroke or transient ischemic attack (TIA) can be mistaken by someone with migraine as “just another aura”.

Symptoms of TIA are similar:

  • Weaknesses, numbness or paralysis of the face, arm or leg on either or both sides of the body.
  • Difficulty speaking or understanding.
  • Dizziness, loss of balance or unexplained fall.
  • Loss of vision, sudden blurred or decreased vision in one or both eyes.
  • Headache, usually severe and of abrupt nature or unexplained change in the pattern of headache.
  • Difficulty swallowing.

A TIA is a dangerous precursor to a full-blown stroke, a life-threatening event which can lead to permanent disability or death.

The key difference is the ‘slow march’ of spreading symptoms which is characteristic of a migraine aura, along with clearing up within the hour. With stroke it tends to be sudden and intense, almost immediate.

Triggers

Triggers for migraine with aura are similar to other classifications of migraine.  Triggers vary widely amongst individuals. Common triggers include:

  • Stress.
  • Sleep deprivation or disruption.
  • Dehydration.
  • Visual strain, bright or flickering lights.
  • Neck stiffness or pain.
  • Odor.
  • Alcohol.
  • Caffeine changes.
  • Hunger.
  • Hormones.
  • Diet – including common trigger foods.

Treatment Options

Acute symptoms for migraine headaches can sometimes be managed effectively with over-the-counter medications like aspirin or ibuprofen when taken at the onset of migraine symptoms.

There are a few specific “migraine” pain relievers available that contain a mixture of aspirin, acetaminophen, and a small amount of caffeine, such as Vanquish and Excedrin Migraine, as well as several new prescription medications.

There are also natural remedies that have proven successful. These include:

  • Riboflavin (vitamin B2)
  • Feverfew
  • Magnesium
  • CoQ10

In addition, there are complementary treatments options, such as:

  • Acupuncture
  • Biofeedback
  • Chiropractic Therapy
  • Diet & Exercise
  • Hydrotherapy
  • Massage

Conclusion

Migraines are a painful experience that can range from mild to extreme. While there is no one-size-fits-all cure, working with your doctor and trying various therapies should be able to provide some relief.

My own therapy consists of: 800 mg ibuprofen, ice pack, heat, and massage, which usually brings relief within about 90 minutes, provided that I begin treatment at the first sign of a migraine.

As for the aura part, while they are annoying and sometimes painful, at least they give me warning of an oncoming migraine attack, and (according to my eye doctor) indicates that I am highly intelligent. (Although I would gladly give up a few IQ points to be rid of the pain.)

More Resources

Medical News Today

WebMD

10 Natural Ways to Reduce Migraine Symptoms

Migraine Treatment

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