I will always remember the first time I had a migraine with aura.
It was 1999, and my year-old son and I were visiting my parents for the weekend. We were at a toy store, and all of the sudden I couldn’t see part of the saleslady’s face. The upper right hand corner of her head was simply not visible and instead I saw flickering lights where her right eye and hairline should have been.
Over the course of the next few minutes the odd light pattern grew larger and took over my peripheral vision. I had to tell my folks that something wasn’t quite right, and so we hung out at the toy store until the colorful flashing lights went away, which they did after about 20 minutes.
To say that I was pretty spooked by what had just happened is an understatement. When we got back to the house, I called a local Ask-a-Nurse hotline to describe what had happened. The nurse said it sounded like a classic case of migraine with aura. She asked if I had ever had migraines before and I replied that I sure had, for years. But I had never had an aura before so this was new territory for me. And what was weird was that I had no migraine pain at all, but I felt as I typically did once a migraine had passed—worn out and kind of out of it.
At the advice of the nurse, when we got back home the following week I made an appointment with my primary care physician, who confirmed the diagnosis. But to be on the safe side he suggested that I follow up with an ophthalmologist, just to be sure there was nothing wrong with my eyes. I did as he suggested, and my eyes were found to be totally fine.
So I was left with the question: why, after years of getting one to two regular migraines a month, did I suddenly get one with an aura? And why didn’t I get any pain to go with it?
I did a lot of research, and I learned that out-of-whack hormones can cause migraines and migraine with aura. Most of the time the pretty flashing lights come right before the classic pain of a migraine, but rarely, for some people like myself they could come in lieu of the headache. My symptoms and the way the lights started out small in one section of my field of vision and then grew slowly over time was also very typical. I also responded well to my usual pain relief routine when the aura would start—a couple of Advil with a cold Pepsi chaser. This made the auras go away faster and resulted in less of the migraine hangover feeling.
I knew that most of my regular migraines were tied to my menstrual cycle, and I had recently stopped nursing my baby boy, so chances were good my hormones were on the wacky side trying to get back to normal levels. Sure enough, I got a few more migraines with auras over the course of the next few months until my cycle regulated itself again, and they pretty much stayed away until I had my second son, when they returned shortly after childbirth as my hormones were zipping all over the place, and then again when I stopped nursing him about a year later.
Since then, I will get a migraine with aura about once or twice a year, usually from looking at a bright light. Then, out of the blue, about a year or so ago I was suddenly getting three or four migraines with aura a week. I thought long and hard about what might be different with my routine and realized that they started exactly at the time that I began taking Zicam to ward off the cold and flu season. I stopped taking Zicam and the auras stopped too. I have done a lot of research on a connection between Zicam and migraines and cannot find anything definitive that would explain it; if any of you have had this experience too I would love to hear from you.
One of the hardest things about having migraine with aura is that they are very hard to describe to someone who has never experienced one. Recently I found this website that has a video showing what a classic migraine aura looks like. Please click on this link and check out the video at the top; it’s time elapsed but this is what about 25 minutes of my life is like every time a migraine with aura hits:
From this video you can also see why I always had a plan in mind to pull over as safely and quickly as possible if an aura ever hit while I was driving. So far, thankfully, that hasn’t happened.
Have you ever had a migraine with aura? If so, do you have pain that comes along with it or are yours pain-free like mine? Have you found anything that triggers them and do you have any tips to prevent them? I look forward to hearing from you!