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Migraine with aura: triggers and symptoms

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What is a migraine aura?

Migraine with aura is when there are warning signs before the migraine begins; these sensory disturbances can last anywhere from five to 60 minutes. If your symptoms last for longer than this then you are experiencing a prolonged aura, these are not uncommon for those who have migraines. 10 to 30% of people with migraine experience migraine with aura.

Some people may experience aura symptoms alongside the headache, or for some no headache will happen after the aura has taken place. How frequently you experience a migraine aura can change depending on your circumstances, you could experience them once a month or once a year.

Symptoms of a migraine with aura

Migraine auras can differ from person to person, however common symptoms include vision disruptions such as flashing lights as well as feelings of confusion or dizziness. You might find that a migraine happens after the symptoms or that you can experience an aura without ever having a migraine.

Migraine auras tend to affect your vision, causing irregularities that can be distressing, such as:

  • Flashing lights
  • Sparkles or stars
  • Zig zag lines
  • Blind spots
  • Tunnel vision
  • Geometric shapes
  • Temporary blindness

Image of what a migraine aura can look like

It is also common to experience sensations in one of your arms or legs, such as tingling or pins and needles; this can also lead to numbness. These feelings can move from your hand up your arm and to your face; you may experience tingling in your face, tongue or lips.

If you experience numbness or paralysis during an aura attack you should speak to your GP, as often these are signs of other neurological issues. Your GP will be able to offer advice and treatments.

Other aura symptoms can include:

  • Dizziness
  • Feeling of imbalance
  • Finding it difficult to speak or the right words
  • Fainting but this is rare
  • Confusion
  • Weakness
  • Vertigo

How long do migraine auras last?

Migraine auras can last anything from five to 60 minutes. If your symptoms last for longer this is referred to as a prolonged aura. Very rarely, people experience aura symptoms that last for days or longer.

What causes migraine aura?

Exactly what causes migraines is not known, however many migraine attacks are triggered certain circumstances or changes in your environment. These triggers vary from person to person, and it can be difficult to differentiate what specifically sets off your migraine, as it could be a combination of factors.

Common migraine aura triggers include:

  • Stress
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Excitement
  • Shock
  • Poor posture
  • Exercise
  • Jet lag
  • Hormonal changes – You may have migraines during your period
  • Tiredness and not sleeping well
  • Dehydration
  • Alcohol
  • Foods such as chocolate or cheese
  • Bright lights
  • Flickering screens
  • Smoking
  • Loud noises
  • Changes in temperature or climate
  • Certain smells
  • Medication such as combined contraceptive pill or some sleeping pills

Changes to your daily routine or environment can cause a migraine to occur; and it may not be the same thing every time that causes an aura to happen. Keeping a diary of your symptoms can help you to identify the triggers or stimulus that can bring on a migraine. If you know your triggers it will be easier to avoid them and in turn avoid a migraine, however this is not always possible and you may want to consider treatment.

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Can migraine aura be caused by stress?

There are a number of factors that can cause migraines, from environmental to hormonal changes and stress is one of them. Stress is something that most of us experience at one time or another, and managing your stress levels can help to alleviate migraines. This could mean that you switch off your phone for an hour a day to give yourself a break, or you have a bath before bed. Making some time to relax should become part of your day, and you shouldn’t feel guilty for looking after yourself, these little changes could help you to avoid a migraine attack too.

Migraine aura treatment

Currently there is no migraine cure or a cure for an aura; however there is a selection of treatments available that may be able to ease your symptoms as well as decrease the frequency of your migraine attacks.

Finding the right migraine treatment for you can take time, as well as a lot of trial and error with different medications as well as lifestyle changes. Many people use their own methods of treatment during a migraine attack, such as lying still in a dark room, sleeping or eating can make them feel a little better.

Making sure that you are eating a healthy and balanced diet, staying hydrated and incorporating exercise into your routines can help to reduce your symptoms. If your migraine aura happens when you’re tired, this can be avoided by getting the right amount of sleep for you, whether you need to nap in the day or go to bed earlier at night. Making sure that you feel your best can go a long way in the form of migraine prevention.

Migraine aura medication

There medications that you can buy over the counter in your local pharmacy and our pharmacists will also be able to offer expert advice. Many people find that painkillers, such as ibuprofen or paracetamol can help to ease the pain of a migraine headache, however these are best taken at the first signs of an aura, before a migraine happens. This way they can be absorbed into the body before the headache starts, if they are taken later than this they may not have time to take effect before your symptoms worsen. Make sure to always read the packaging instructions and the enclosed patient leaflet before you take any painkillers.

However if you find that over the counter tablets are not helping to manage your symptoms, you should see your GP. They’ll be able to offer stronger medication, such as triptans or anti-sickness medicines, as well as more advice to help improve your symptoms. You may need to use a combination of medications to ease your migraines or decrease the symptoms of auras.