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Migraine with aura

Definition

Migraine is a neurological disorder that generally involves repeated headaches. Some people also have nausea, vomiting, and other symptoms.

Most people with migraines do not have any warning before it occurs. However, some people have a visual disturbance called an aura before the headache starts.

See also:

Alternative Names

Migraine - classic; Headache - migraine with aura

Causes

A migraine is caused by abnormal brain activity, which is triggered by stress, food, or something else. The exact chain of events is not known. However, it seems to involve various nerve pathways and chemicals in the brain. The changes affect blood flow in the brain and surrounding membranes.

Migraines occur in women more than men, most often between the ages of 10 and 46 years. In some cases, they appear to run in families.

Migraine attacks may be triggered by:

  • Allergic reactions
  • Bright lights
  • Loud noises
  • Physical or mental stress
  • Changes in sleep patterns
  • Smoking or exposure to tobacco smoke
  • Missed meals
  • Alcohol
  • Hormonal fluctuations (related to menstrual cycles or use of birth control pills)

Foods associated with migraine include:

  • Foods containing the amino acid tyramine (red wine, aged cheese, smoked fish, chicken livers, figs, some beans)
  • Chocolates
  • Nuts and peanut butter
  • Fruits (avocado, banana, citrus fruit)
  • Onions
  • Dairy products
  • Baked goods
  • Meats containing nitrates (bacon, hot dogs, salami, cured meats)
  • Foods containing monosodium glutamate (MSG)
  • Any processed, fermented, pickled, or marinated foods

True migraine headaches are not a result of underlying brain tumors or other serious medical problems. However, only an experienced health care provider can determine whether headache symptoms represent migraine or some underlying medical condition that requires further tests. This assessment can only be made after a review of a patient's history and a complete neurological exam.

Symptoms

When a migraine begins with visual disturbances (aura), these warning symptoms may occur anywhere from a few minutes to 24 hours before the headache. The visual changes are common in one or both eyes. They may occur in any combination:

  • Seeing zigzag lines
  • Seeing flashing lights
  • Other visual hallucinations
  • Temporary blind spots
  • Sensitivity to bright light
  • Blurred vision
  • Eye pain

Other symptoms that may precede or accompany the headache include:

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

The headache itself is often described as a "pounding" feeling that starts on one side of the head and may spread to the other side. For many patients, the headaches start on the same side each time. Many patients describe pain behind the eye or in the back of the head and neck.

The headache typically begins as a dull ache that progressively worsens over several minutes to hours to the point of disabling pain. The headache may last several hours to days, during which patients are sensitive to light or sound. Patients often wish to rest in a quiet, dark room.

Treatment

To learn what may be triggering your migraine headaches, keep a headache diary. Write down:

  • When your headaches occurred
  • How severe they were
  • Additional symptoms
  • What you've eaten
  • Sleep patterns
  • Menstrual cycles
  • Any other possible factors

For example, the diary may reveal that your headaches tend to occur more often on days when you awaken earlier than usual. Changing your sleep schedule may then result in fewer migraine attacks.

Some birth control pills and other medications may trigger headaches. Your health care provider should address questions regarding their use.

Even in the absence of a clear factor that triggers migraine attacks, try to keep a regular exercise and sleep schedule. Avoid smoking, caffeine, and alcohol. Some patients have found biofeedback and self-hypnosis to be effective at reducing the frequency of migraine attacks.

MEDICATION

Although there is no cure for migraine headaches, numerous medications are available. These medications are used to:

  • Prevent migraines from occurring
  • Stop the migraine once early symptoms develop
  • Treat the symptoms of migraine

All medications have potential side effects and may be incompatible with other medications you are taking. Also, many migraine medications are associated with birth defects and are therefore not safe to use during pregnancy.

Often, a health care provider will try several classes of medications before one (or a combination) is found to be effective.

PREVENTING MIGRAINES

Many medications can reduce the frequency of migraines. Generally, these need to be taken daily in order to be effective. These medications are less useful and tolerable to patients with infrequent headaches. Medications in this category include:

  • Beta-blockers such as propanolol
  • Anti-depressants such as amitriptyline
  • Anti-convulsants such as valproic acid and topiramate
  • Calcium-channel blockers such as verapamil
  • Serotonin re-uptake inhibitors such as venlafaxine

STOPPING AN ATTACK

Other medications are taken when there is the first sign of an impending migraine attack. In the case of migraine with aura, this is typically when the visual disturbances are first noted. These medications can effectively stop the migraine in its tracks, preventing the progression to other migraine symptoms or reducing the severity of the attack.

Many of these medications cause constriction of blood vessels and cannot be given to patients at risk of heart attack or other conditions. These medications include:

  • Ergots such as DHE-45
  • Serotonin agonists / triptans such as sumatriptan
  • Isometheptene

These medications come in various preparations to enable administration via different routes. For example, patients who have vomiting and cannot keep pills down may benefit from a nasal spray or injection.

Call for an appointment with your health care provider if you are taking an ergotamine-containing medication and you are likely to become pregnant. Such medications can have serious side effects to an unborn baby.

TREATING SYMPTOMS

Other medications are primarily given to treat the symptoms of migraine. Used alone or in combinations, these drugs can minimize pain, nausea, or emotional distress caused by the migraine. Some of these medications may also have some effect on the underlying process in addition to providing symptomatic relief. Medications in this group include:

  • Anti-emetics such as prochlorperazine
  • Sedatives such as butalbital
  • Non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen
  • Acetaminophen (Tylenol)
  • Narcotic pain relievers such as meperidine

Support Groups

For additional resources, see migraine support group.

Outlook (Prognosis)

Migraine headaches usually do not represent a significant threat to your health. However, in rare circumstances, people with migraine may be at risk of serious complications. A severe migraine may result in a stroke, possibly due to prolonged constriction of blood vessels. Some people may have side effects of medications. A physician should choose the appropriate medications based on symptoms and other conditions.

Experienced physicians can identify patients who may be at increased risk from these complications and can provide treatment that reduces such risk.

The large number of people affected by migraine has led to extensive research into finding effective treatment. In the future, expect that new medications will continue to be developed.

When to Contact a Medical Professional

If a person has any of the following, call for an evaluation by a physician immediately:

  • Speech, vision, balance, movement, sensation, and other neurological problems, particularly if the person has NOT had these symptoms with previous headaches
  • Loss of consciousness
  • A change in headache pattern
  • The worst headache in one's life
  • Headaches that are more severe when lying down
  • A headache that starts extremely abruptly

Such headaches may be the result of stroke, intracranial hemorrhage, aneurysm, or other serious condition and require the immediate attention of a physician.

Depending on the history of the headache, a CT scan or MRI may be done to rule out any of the above conditions.

Also contact your healthcare provider if:

  • Previously effective treatments are no longer helpful.
  • Side effects of medications occur, including irregular heartbeat, changes in skin color (pale or blue), extreme sleepiness, persistent cough, depression, fatigue, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, constipation, stomach pain or cramps, dry mouth, extreme thirst, among others.

Prevention

People at high risk of migraines should avoid any factors that seemed to trigger a previous migraine.

Most patients with migraine can identify certain foods that are closely associated with their migraine headaches. To find out which foods are responsible, avoid all of the above-mentioned foods and then gradually work each food back into the diet. An accurate headache diary helps determine which foods may be responsible.

Many people with migraine become familiar with their warning symptoms prior to a headache and may be able to take medication to lessen the oncoming headache.


Review Date: 11/21/2006
Reviewed By: Daniel Kantor, M.D., Director of the Comprehensive MS Center, Neuroscience Institute, University of Florida Health Science Center, Jacksonville, FL. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network.
The information provided herein should not be used during any medical emergency or for the diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition. A licensed medical professional should be consulted for diagnosis and treatment of any and all medical conditions. Call 911 for all medical emergencies. Links to other sites are provided for information only -- they do not constitute endorsements of those other sites. 1997- A.D.A.M., Inc. Any duplication or distribution of the information contained herein is strictly prohibited.
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