What Is a Migraine Aura?

Vision, Sensory, Speech, and Movement Disturbances in Migraine Auras

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About a third of the time, migraines are preceded by some sort of neurological disturbance -- most commonly visual-- known as an aura. Auras occur anywhere from minutes to an hour before the pain of a migraine starts, and they develop gradually, not suddenly. Auras may also occur during a migraine headache.

Each individual aura symptom (whether that be visual, sensory, speech-related, or movement-related) lasts anywhere from 5 to 60 minutes and is reversible.

It's possible to experience an aura without a headache (migraine pain), and this is considered a migraine equivalent. 

Vision Changes Seen in a Migraine Aura

 Vision disturbances are variable in a migraine aura. Classically a person will notice a bright spot or a loss of vision in a small area of their vision that then slowly expands -- and with the expansion of this visual disturbance, a person may also notice zigzag lines or shapes.

Other visual disturbances may include one or more of the following:

Other Neurological Disturbances of a Migraine Aura 

Auras are most commonly visual but sensory, speech-related, or motor changes may also occur. For instance, sensory disturbances are also common in an aura and may occur on their own or in additional to a visual aura.

With sensory auras, a person usually experiences tingling on one side of the face or limb that slowly moves down their face or limb, and eventually becoming a numb sensation. 

Weakness and speech-related problems like difficulty finding one's words may also occur in a migraine aura -- although these are less common.


Premonitory Symptoms are Not Part of a Migraine Aura

Premonitory symptoms can serve as a warning sign that a migraine is looming. These symptoms occur about a day or two before a migraine attack and should not be confused with a migraine aura. They occur during the prodrome phase of a migraine, which is the first phase, and can often be quite subtle. 

Some symptoms that may signal the onset of a migraine headache include:

  • Loss of appetite
  • Food cravings
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Chills
  • Increased urination
  • Increased sweating
  • Swelling of the face
  • Irritability
  • Fatigue

It's unclear exactly how many people experience premonitory symptoms, but studies suggest it may be around 30 percent -- again, it's challenging to say since many of the symptoms are nonspecific (i.e., many of us have food cravings and do not have migraines). 

The Bottom Line

While frightening, the neurological symptoms of migraine auras are reversible. That being said, if you d suffer from migraines, your doctor will want to discern whether or not you get auras, as may increase your risk of stroke and also may affect whether you can take birth control that contains estrogen (if you are a woman). 


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Headache Classification Committee of the International Headache Society. "The International Classification of Headache Disorders: 3rd Edition (beta version)". Cephalalgia 2013;33(9):629-808.

Kantor, Daniel. Migraine with Aura. U.S. National Library of Medicine and the National Institutes of Health. Updated 11/21/2006. Retrieved: September 7, 2008. http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/000721.htm

Kelman, L. (2004). The premonitory symptoms (prodrome): a tertiary care study of 893 migraineurs. Headache, Oct;44(9):865-72.

Olesen, J. “Understanding the Biologic Basis of Migraine.” NEJM. 22 Dec, 1994.

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