Migraines are somewhat mysterious, vicious, angry infiltrators that can cause debilitating pain and a myriad of other symptoms. If you experience migraines you may be nodding your head in agreement right now. But if you don’t suffer from migraines you may be shrugging and saying to yourself, “oh come on, everyone gets headaches.”
But migraines are often much more than just headaches. In fact, migraines are more like electrical disturbances of the brain and nervous system that happen to have a symptom of headache.
Migraine sufferers can experience severe, throbbing or vice-grip-like headaches that last for days and in some cases even weeks. The headaches are often accompanied by nausea and a sensitivity to light and sound along with a disruption of motor skills. I said above that migraines are mysterious because, as of writing this post, there is still no one definitive test that can be given to determine if you have migraines (though genetic work is being done.) It is one of those ailments that you have to describe to your doctor. That description, along with a family history of symptoms is usually what gets you your diagnosis. It is one of the chronic conditions that for many years has been diagnosed on words alone. It is this lack of objective testing that make migraines a darling in the not-so-legit, get-a-medical-marijuana-card, or in other similar alternative medicine practices such as acupuncture or homeopathy. If you can’t even test for it, how can you objectively show if the patient is better? (Answer: you can’t. It’s all based on the subjective reporting of the patient.) But that is a topic for another day. Today, I’d like to direct your attention to one specific aspect of migraines, that over the past few years has been scientifically studied and can be seen- both by doctors and patients. Though patients have seen it for much, much longer indeed.
I am referring to the electrical disturbance that effects the visual cortex and causes what is called the migraine aura. The migraine aura is technically the second stage in the migraine onset though is often the first sign noticed by patients. Many describe the aura as a blinding (literally) multi-colored (though primarily white) spot that grows into an arc that slowly vibrates across the field of vision, causing temporary blind spots. A great description is that of sparkling shattered glass that the sun has been focused upon. The aura on average takes about 30 minutes to travel across what seems to the sufferer to be the eyes (one can see the aura with one’s eyes open or closed) but it is actually an electrical disturbance happening in your brain.
I have heard the aura referred to as a brain storm and I rather like that description. Auras can also be accompanied by loss of feeling on one side of the body and or and a disruption of motor skills. My experience is that it resembles a small temporary stroke where a lot of brain functioning and ability to react is lost for a few hours, or in some cases, days. I have personally experienced a sensitivity to sound, light and in some instances even smells become overwhelming. Patients also report being at a loss for… uh… what… are… those.. things… called.. again? Ah yes patients are often at a loss for words as cognitive ability can diminish for hours and often days after the main stage of a migraine. This is known as the postdrome stage.
Click on the above image to go to the Mayo Clinic site for a really great video that shows a fantastic animation of the different stages of migraine and how it effects the brain.
Often (and in my experience) as soon as the aura has traveled across the field of vision, the headache and nausea kicks in. Though I have, upon occasion experienced an aura episode without the headache, in most cases it serves as a very bright warning to find a dark space to hide for at least 4 hours-and if you are lucky, to take some migraine medicine.
Since the aura experience is often difficult to describe and I wanted to explain it to my partner, I decided to paint what my migraine auras look like. Below is a photo of a 3ft x 4ft acrylic on canvas representation of a single moment in in time in one of my “brain storms.” The painting shows two frames, one of each eye, if I was looking down at the ground at a beetle. The vibrating blinding arc will stay wherever you gaze, with eyes open or closed and completely covers a spot in your vision. The arc often begins as a tiny dot and grows or will begin on one side of the field of vision and travel across during the 20-30 minute episode. Then, as soon as the blind spot is gone, the headache starts.
If migraine art is interesting to you you may also enjoy this book titled, Migraine Art The Migraine Experience from Within. It has some great illustrations of other people’s interpretations of visual disturbances associated with migraines. I own it and it’s lovely.
If you too are a sufferer of brain storms do feel free to share your experiences below!
Some links on information and studies being done on migraines:
Genetic Mutation Linked With Typical Form of Migraine Headache
New theory on cause of migraine
Migraine With Aura May Lead to Heart Attack, Blood Clots for Women
Migraine May Permanently Change Brain Structure
What is a Migraine Aura?
I am so glad my migraines mostly departed in my mid-thirties. And that the photophobia and phonophobia mostly went away with ’em. What a lovely visual representation your art is Amy. And interesting because I think to myself “I wouldn’t have been able to look at this during a migraine at all.”