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What is a migraine with aura?

Migraine with aura is a type of migraine that has warning signs before the pain begins, called an aura.

This used to be called classical migraine.

Aura symptoms can include seeing flashing lights, blind spots, difficulty focussing on things, balance and co-ordination problems, weakness, stiffness and tingling in the neck, shoulders or limbs, and difficulty speaking.

The aura stage of the migraine often lasts from around 15 minutes to an hour.

Around 1 in 5 people who experience migraines get aura symptoms.

Although the aura usually comes before a painful migraine, some people get the aura symptoms without a headache, or sometimes only a mild headache.

Taking medication before the migraine symptoms have fully developed may reduce the effects of a migraine.

What is a migraine with aura, and what causes it?

Scientists aren’t sure what causes migraines with aura. It’s thought that at least two brain chemicals called serotonin and dopamine play a role. According to the theory, something goes awry in the way these chemicals regulate brain function. This may cause the brain and the body’s immune system to overreact. When this happens, a flood of immune response cells flows through the blood vessels to the brain.

The brain’s blood vessels constrict and this is thought to cause the aura. Soon after the blood vessels widen (dilate) and this is thought to cause the headache.

Whatever the cause, the good news is that although painful, migraines with aura are not life threatening.

What are the symptoms of a migraine with aura?

Headache is considered the symptom common to all types of migraines, although a few children experience an aura without a headache.

Migraine pain usually occurs in the front of the head on one or both sides of the temples. It may throb or be steady. The headache may last from four to 72 hours.

Other symptoms of migraine may include any of these:

How is a migraine with aura diagnosed?

Before determining treatment, your GP will want to be sure that there are no other causes for your headache. So, it’s likely the doctor will perform physical and neurological examinations. In addition, your doctor will ask you about your health history, including questions such as these:

  • Do other family members have migraines or other kinds of headaches?
  • Do you have any allergies?
  • What is the level of stress in your life?
  • Do you use medications such as contraceptive pills or vasodilators that could cause headaches?
  • Do you exert yourself physically or notice that headaches start after coughing or sneezing?

Your GP may also request these tests to be sure that the headache is not caused by other factors:

  • Blood tests
  • Imaging such as X-ray, CT scan or MRI
  • Checks for infection, bleeding or other medical problems that could cause similar symptoms
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