A Closer Look at the Different Types of Migraine Aura

According to the American Migraine Foundation, only about 25-30 percent of individuals with migraines experience auras. Doctors and researchers are often puzzled as to why auras and migraines go together, yet not everyone who gets migraines experiences auras along with them. For those who do experience auras, they’re often the ‘warning sign’ that a migraine attack is imminent.

What are auras? What types of migraines come with auras? How do you treat migraines with auras? Here’s a closer look at the answers to those questions and more.

Migraine Aura – What is It?

While migraines generally come with symptoms like severe pulsing or throbbing head pain, nausea, and sensitivity to sound, light, and smells, some individuals experience aura symptoms, too. These auras often develop before the migraine headache occurs.

Migraine auras often occur over a period of 5-20 minutes and typically last less than an hour. Auras come in six main forms:  visual disturbances, tactile disturbances, language difficulty, weakness, brainstem aura, and retinal migraine.  Some people will have multiple forms, often occurring back to back.

Visual Migraine Auras

Visual migraine auras are some of the most common types of auras experienced before or during a migraine. Some of these visual changes may include:

  • Seeing sparkles or light or stars
  • Blind spots, known as scotomas
  • Tunnel vision
  • Flashing lights
  • Zigzagging lines
  • Colored spots

Often, these visual symptoms begin at the center of the individual’s field of vision, then move outward. Some individuals even experience temporary blindness when they have a migraine.

Physical Sensations

Certain individuals experience migraine auras that are physical sensations like numbness or tingling. They may start in a small location and spread to other parts of the face or body on the same side.

Physical sensation auras include:

  • Numbness
  • Pins and needles

Language Difficulty Auras

Before or during a migraine, some individuals may have a tough time trying to communicate and speak to other people. They may find it difficult to find the words they need to use to construct a sentence, though they can often understand without any problems.

Rare forms of auras

Additional subtypes of migraines that include auras include:

  • Migraine with Brainstem Aura – Formerly called a basilar-type migraine, migraines with brainstem auras are very rare. Studies show that only about 10% of individuals who experience auras with their migraines have this type of migraine. Symptoms of this type of migraine include double vision, ringing in the ears, vertigo, and slurred speech.
  • Hemiplegic Migraine – A very rare type of migraine, hemiplegic migraines involved temporary paralysis or weakness that occurs on one side of the body. Usually, this goes away in 24 hours, but it can last a couple of days. Although the National Organization for Rare Diseases notes that we don’t know how prevalent this type of migraine is, other estimates suggest that only 1 out of 10,000 people will ever experience hemiplegic migraine.
  • Retinal Migraine – This type of rare migraine with aura subtype only affects the vision in a single eye. It may result in the appearance of flickering lights or even temporary blindness in one eye. Only around one out of 200 individuals who experience migraines will ever experience a retinal migraine, and it more commonly affects people under the age of 40.

Migraine with Aura – What Causes it?

The cause of migraine auras is not clear, but research suggests that it is caused by an extra wave of electrical activity in the largest part of the brain called the cerebral cortex.  This electrical activity, called cortical spreading depression, starts in the back of the brain where many visual areas are located, which may be why visual auras are the most common form.  Scientists have shown that several migraine medications are able to alter components of cortical spreading depression.

Treating Migraine with Aura

While migraines with aura are treated much in the same way as migraines without aura, experiencing auras is often useful for knowing when to administer early treatment. When auras occur, migraine sufferers can go ahead and use acute treatment at the onset, which is key to attempting to achieve total relief from migraine symptoms, reducing the length of the migraine, and lowering the chance that the migraine reoccurs.

Although auras and other symptoms may fluctuate and come and go in prevalence, if you experience a dramatic change in your migraine symptoms, consider seeing your physician. You could require a different type of migraine treatment.

There’s currently no cure for migraines with aura, but you can help. Donate to The Will Erwin Headache Research Foundation today to help find a cure for migraines and cluster headaches.