What is a Migraine Aura, and How is it Different from a Migraine Without Aura?
There are several types of migraines, but two stand out as the most distinguishable subtypes. The first is a migraine preceded by a sensory experience called an aura. The second is a migraine without aura. About a third of migraineurs routinely have migraines with aura. What’s important to note is that not every migraine comes with aura, so a dual diagnosis is common.
What is a Migraine with Aura?
Migraine with aura means the migraineur experiences a sensory effect that prodromes a migraine. The aura, in other words, is a precursor, or indication, to the beginning of a migraine. It can affect smell, vision, nerves or other neurological components of one’s self. It can almost feel like an out of body or supernatural experience to the person.
This sensory occurrence typically affects just one side of the body, is fully reversible and is followed by a headache. It’s not uncommon, however, to experience an aura without a headache. This is known as a “silent migraine” or an “acephalgic migraine.”
Unknown to most, an aura is not unique to migraines. Other occurrences that come with aura include strokes and seizures. But, don’t let that frighten you. I only mention it to emphasize the importance of seeking medical consultation and treatment should you experience aura.
Some warning signs you may be about to experience a migraine headache with aura are:
- Seeing lines that zig-zag
- Noticing lights that look like dots
- Having a blind spot temporarily
- Hearing a ringing in your ears
- Having a “funny” feeling in your body
- Noticing an unusual smell
- Craving salt or sugar
- Noticing strange phantom smells, like burning or cigarette smoke
How Is A Migraine Without Aura Different?
First, a migraine without aura can be more debilitating than a migraine with aura. Some of the symptoms include:
- Throbbing or pulsing pain
- Pain on only one side of the head
- Sensitivity to light or sound
- Occurrences of nausea and/or vomiting
- Sensitivity to physical activity
- Increasing pain
The key to identifying a migraine without aura over a typical tension headache is that multiple symptoms besides pain generally accompany migraines.
How Are These Migraines Treated?
Migraines are treated differently based on whether they come with aura or without. Migraines with aura go through three phases. The first is the prodrome or pre-headache period that may last hours to days. The second is the phase of experiencing a painful headache. The third is when you feel hungover or very tired and sickly feeling. These types of migraines can often be headed off with an action plan that includes immediate hydration, increasing your electrolytes (namely sodium and potassium) and a dark room with an ice pack as soon as you experience aura symptoms.
Migraines without aura typically (but not always) last between 4 and 72 hours when untreated or unsuccessfully prevented. These types of migraines are best treated preventatively using such treatments as:
- Aromatherapy with oils such as lavender and peppermint
- Eating foods with magnesium such as avocado and almond butter
- Practicing regular deep breathing techniques through activities like yoga and meditation
- Adding ginger powder to your diet
- Getting a massage or using other relaxation techniques
Regardless of whether you have migraines with aura or migraines without aura, I know they can be debilitating. It is my hope that understanding the two types will help you advocate with your doctor in properly treating the condition.