What Causes Auras?

Auras occur in approximately 20% of migraine sufferers. Some of these people will have migraine attacks with an aura, while others won’t have an aura at all. Auras are a warning sign and precede a migraine-related headache. They can easily last for anything between 5-60 minutes, but on an average, they last for about 20 minutes.

The Symptoms

An aura most commonly consists of various visual symptoms such as blind spots in your vision, zigzag lines (referred to as “fortification spectra” or “ fortification illusions”) or even flashing lights.

These auras may sometimes also interfere with driving or reading and can distort shapes and figures too. Some people also get a pins-and-needles/tingling sensation in just one arm or leg (parenthesis). Some of the other common symptoms of a migraine aura include:

  • Seeing flickering lights/flashes of light
  • Seeing stars, spots, halos, lines, circles, as well as other colors or shapes
  • Loss of vision
  • Cloudy vision
  • Blurry vision
  • Dizziness
  • Seeing dark areas
  • Seeing 3-D effects
  • Other vision changes
  • Confusion
  • Stiffness in the neck area
  • Allodynia (sensitivity to feel/touch)
  • Aphasia (difficulty speaking or finding words)
  • Vertigo (sensation of whirling/spinning)
  • Paralysis/one-sided weakness (in a hemiplegic migraine)
  • Auditory hallucinations (hearing various sounds that aren’t there)
  • Olfactory hallucinations (smelling odors that aren’t there)
  • Alice in Wonderland Syndrome (distortion of images/body perspective)

Sometimes, people that are seeing auras may see squares, circles, or some form of distortions of the things they see around them. Sometimes, objects may seem closer or even further. Migraines & auras, both may include a range of symptoms or a mix of symptoms. But auras can go far beyond these symptoms.

Other Symptoms

At times people also feel terribly irritable, thirsty, and euphoric or may suffer from excessive and non-stop yawning. It is believed that visual distortions caused by migraines inspired Lewis Carroll to write his novel-Through the Looking Glass. Some people wake up feeling exactly like they’ve been “rammed into by a train” or have a gradual feeling of something not feeling right. There have also been some rare cases of people suffering from advanced hallucinations and amnesia.

Some Things To Keep In Mind

When you look at these different symptoms, it becomes clearer how some of them can be quite frightening, especially if you are experiencing them for the very first time! All of these are warning signs of a migraine aura. Although these symptoms can be quite worrisome and stressful when first experienced, people that have auras often have similar occurrences every time. Older individuals with new-onset auras should always make it a point to consult their doctor to ensure that these symptoms aren’t a stroke or TIA.

What Causes Auras?

Discovering that you’ve got a migraine-related aura may actually come as a relief. This is because the symptoms can range from the bizarre to very severe; so much so that you may feel that they are doing some kind of permanent damage. However, this knowledge doesn’t take away from the actual problem. So what exactly causes auras in the first place?

In a migraine, blood vessels and the blood flow in your head becomes affected. For a long time, the medical community believed that a decreased blood flow to the brain cells (which also meant less oxygen flow to the brain) may be the cause of auras. But now, it has been found that even overexcitement of a person’s brain cells can cause an aura.

What Exactly Is An Aura?

Auras are the symptoms that around 15-20% of migraine sufferers find themselves dealing with before the onset of headache pain. Sometimes, they may see auras while they have a headache too. This is referred to as the prodromal stage. The one positive side to auras is that they are like a warning sign that the person is about to get a severe migraine attack.

The downside is that in some people the auras are as severe as the migraine headaches themselves. It’s not very easy to estimate this accurately, because some people experience auras hours or even days before the onset of an actual headache. In some instances, this may also be broken down into two distinct stages- prodromal & aura. The former may easily last for a day or even up to a week, but the aura stage generally lasts for a few minutes.

Auras generally last for 20-40 minutes before the onset of a migraine. Auras and migraines are closely linked, and it’s why many people also have auras while they have a migraine. Others may get auras without any a headache and pain at all. These are referred to as silent migraines.

Visual Disturbance Related to Auras

Regardless of the type of a migraine, you are suffering from; the same treatments are likely to be investigated. As mentioned earlier, the “prodromal” stage may start a day or more before the onset of the headache. The person will feel irritable, tired or under the weather. Even though a visual disturbance may be evident in one eye, the message is being sent from the brain. Try to cover one eye and then the other to see if the vision of both your eyes has been affected.

Researchers and doctors now know that migraine auras aren’t caused by constriction of the blood vessels in the brain or ischemia (lack of blood flow). Instead, they are produced by the hyperactivity of nerves in the brain which get activated just before migraine pain. If these nerves are situated in the brain’s visual processing areas, the patient will experience these visual symptoms.

Some Things To Keep In View

When any other areas of the brain and the nerves are excited, parenthesis might occur. It’s very rare for migraine auras to be associated with a stroke. However, if you ever experience prolonged/unusual aura symptoms, seek medical attention without delay.

Some patients will experience more generalized symptoms of a migraine such as elation, personality changes, and increases in hunger or energy. All of these warnings are called prodromes of a migraine and they can easily precede a headache by hours to days. It’s important to tell prodromes from auras, as they aren’t one and the same thing.


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