Migraine auras are visual, sensory, or motor disturbances that come immediately before or during a migraine headache. Auras typically last less than an hour but can, in rare cases, persist after the headache has subsided. Roughly 1 in 3 people who experience migraines will also have some or all symptoms of a migraine aura.
What Does a Migraine Aura Feel Like?
As mentioned, migraine auras can manifest as visual, sensory, or motor disturbances, as outlined below:
Up to 98 percent of patients who have migraines with auras will experience some type of visual disturbance in one or both eyes. These can manifest as flashing lights, zigzag lines, random geometric shapes, and bright colors. Some people may also develop temporary blindness (called amaurosis) or have blind spots in their field of vision.
Sensory auras are also common in people with migraines and can manifest as a tingling or numbness sensation in the extremities (most often the hand). For others, sensory disturbances can manifest as a pins-and-needles sensation/itchiness or ringing in noises in the ears.
Motor disturbances (also known as motor weakness) are less common but can still occur in people with migraines. They can manifest as weakness or numbness on one side of the body, loss of balance, or difficulty speaking (slurred speech).
Motor weakness should not be confused with hemisensory loss, another rare symptom of migraines with an aura that causes numbness or temporary paralysis on one side of the body.
Other symptoms that may be present during the aura phase of a migraine include mild disorientation, dizziness, nausea, and oversensitivity to bright lights and loud noises. Fortunately, these symptoms usually go away once the migraine subsides.
As we have established, only around 30 percent of people with migraines will experience aura symptoms. However, there is another small subset of people who experience aura without any headache pain whatsoever, hence the name “silent” or “painless” migraines. While the symptoms of a silent migraine are significantly less severe, they can still lead to serious discomfort.
What Causes Migraine Auras?
A migraine aura is a complex neurological occurrence that is not yet fully understood by the medical community. However, research suggests that migraine auras are triggered by a wave of electrical activity that washes across the brain.
This electrical activity is thought to cause a temporary change in brain function, which then manifests as various aura symptoms depending on the area of the brain affected.
Are Migraine Auras Dangerous?
Migraine auras are usually temporary and are not considered dangerous in and of themselves. However, in rare cases, migraines with auras can signify a more serious underlying condition, such as a stroke or brain tumor.
If you experience recurring aura symptoms that last longer than an hour at a time, it’s important to seek medical attention as soon as possible. Your doctor will conduct a conclusive diagnosis to rule out any serious underlying conditions.
Migraine auras are temporary and often harmless visual, sensory, or motor disturbances that precede or accompany a migraine attack. In fact, they can be a blessing in disguise in that they serve as a warning sign that a migraine is about to happen and you need to take the necessary preventative measures.
That said, if you experience persistent, severe aura symptoms or your aura symptoms last long after the headache has subsided, be sure to see a doctor. There may be a more serious underlying medical condition that may be causing them.