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Migraine Aura: What Is It and Is It Dangerous?

What is a migraine?

Migraine is a neurological disease characterized by recurring head pain. How can you tell a migraine from a headache? Headaches can cause mild to severe head pain in part or all of the head and can extend to the neck and facial area, depending on the headache type.

Migraines are throbbing, severe headaches that appear on one side of the head. The pain typically worsens with movement and is severe enough to affect daily life. A migraine usually lasts for hours to a few days.

Between migraine attacks, you may not have other symptoms; however, symptoms can develop about a day before the head pain begins and linger for a few days after the attack.

Migraines are more than just head pain; they can affect your entire body.

If you have migraines, you may notice:

  • Significant fatigue
  • Sensitivity to noise, smell, or light
  • Indigestion
  • Feeling sick
  • Blurry vision
  • Changes in mood

Migraines are one of the most common types of headache disorders. At least 39 million Americans experience migraines. Over 10% of the general population worldwide experience migraines.

Migraine phases

Migraine attacks can have four phases. If you recognize the signs of an attack, you can understand when to treat your condition. The sooner you can take medication, the better. If you wait too long, the medication may not stop the pain.

Prodrome phase. Is the precursor to the active pain stage. This can last from a few hours to a few days. You may notice changes in your mood and alterations in the way you think. It may be harder to speak or sleep. You may experience food cravings.

Aura phase. Not every person will experience It. It happens right before the head pain starts. It’s the shortest phase in the migraine timeline. In the aura phase, your senses temporarily change.

Headache phase. It's the actual moment when you have a headache. Your symptoms will be most noticeable during this phase. This phase typically lasts from a few hours to a few days. Note from editor: Above it states a migraine can last for months.

Postdrome phase. Occurs after the acute head pain goes away. During this time, your body is recovering from the migraine. Some people call this the “migraine hangover.” You may notice changes in your mood and ability to think, and you may be more tired than usual.

What is a migraine with aura?

The two most common types of migraine are:

  • Migraine without aura
  • Migraine with aura

As many as one-third of individuals with migraines experience migraine with aura.

Auras are sensory changes occurring directly before the headache phase in the migraine timeline. Sometimes, auras can occur when the head pain begins.

Auras are typically short and last about 5-60 minutes. After the aura ends, the sensory changes resolve. Your aura should have a clear start and finish. You may not experience an aura with every migraine. It’s not unusual for your aura symptoms to change over time.

What causes migraine auras?

The medical community is still researching auras. This phenomenon is not completely understood. An electrical or chemical wave moving across the brain’s cortex may cause auras. This active discharge from your body’s central nervous system may temporarily alter your senses. After the wave passes, your aura resolves.

The area experiencing the wave influences your symptoms. If the wave moves across the speech center of your brain, you may have difficulty talking. You may find it hard to keep your balance if the wave cuts across the area that controls movement. Auras are different from person to person because the direction of the wave varies in each person.

Different types of auras

Your aura can affect your hearing, vision, speech, motor skills, or sense of touch. It depends on what part of your brain the chemical or electrical wave touches.

  • Visual auras affect your sight. You may notice flickering arcs of light, stars, or bright, squiggly lines in your vision. Sometimes, people report temporary blind spots. Visual auras generally affect only one area of your sight. About 90% of people who have a migraine with aura will experience visual auras.
  • Auditory auras alter your ability to hear. You may notice tinnitus, an intense ringing in your ears. It may start to drown other sounds around you. You may hear music or sounds that aren’t there.
  • Sensory auras affect your sense of touch. You may experience a tingling or numbing sensation anywhere on your body.
  • Language auras affect your ability to speak. It is rare. You may struggle to find the right word or speech might be mumbled or slurred.
  • Motor auras change your ability to move. You may experience muscle weakness on one side of your body. Sometimes, it may be present on both sides. Motor auras are rare.

If you notice an aura, you should let your doctor know. They can help determine if a migraine or another health disorder is causing your symptoms.

Is an aura dangerous?

Migraines are a benign health condition. This means that a migraine is painful, but it’s not causing you lasting harm. But, it can dramatically reduce your quality of life.

An aura can be very disorienting, but it’s not harmful. They do cause safety risks, though. You may have a hard time driving a vehicle with a visual or sensory aura. Additionally, research indicates women with auras may be at a higher risk of having a stroke.

When to contact a doctor

Sometimes, it’s hard to distinguish migraine pain from a life-threatening emergency. Seek medical treatment immediately if you experience:

  • A new type of headache.
  • A severe headache that comes on quickly.
  • New symptoms with your headache.
  • A headache lasting longer than 72 hours.
  • A headache that doesn’t respond to treatment.
  • A headache with severe pain and/or symptoms.
  • Facial drooping, numbness, or weakness.
  • A headache that wakes you while sleeping.

If your headache is different than what you normally experience, it may be a sign of another medical condition, such as a stroke or other neurological disorder.

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