What is Sensory Aura?

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: June 2022

Migraine attacks are often more complex than just a simple headache. They can also be accompanied by other symptoms and changes in your senses. These types of attacks are called migraine with aura.1

About 25 to 30 percent of people living with migraine experience any type of aura. About 36 percent of those people experience sensory aura. There are different kinds of sensory auras. They are often described as numbness or tingling in a body part.1,2

A sensory aura often happens before the headache phase of a migraine. So it is sometimes considered a warning sign. It usually occurs 30 minutes to an hour before the head pain, but a sensory aura can also happen during the headache phase. And it may not happen with every single migraine.2

Sensory auras usually last anywhere from 10 minutes to an hour. Auras are temporary. They should disappear completely after the migraine.1,3

What are sensory auras like?

You may experience a sensory aura by itself. Or it may happen at the same time as a visual aura.4

Sensory auras often begin in one arm or leg. They feel like numbness or tingling. That feeling can move up your arm or leg. It can also spread to your face. Other people experience sensory auras that start at their mouth and spread out.4,5

What causes this type of aura?

The most popular theory around migraine with visual aura is called “cortical spreading depression.” Brain cells (neurons) work by spreading a chemical and electrical wave from one cell to the next. In cortical spreading depression, a large wave spreads across the outer layer of the brain (cortex).3
This wave tells the neurons it reaches to stop firing or to fire differently. This message makes the brain act abnormally. Experts believe that it causes the sensory changes seen in visual auras. But it is not clear if this is also what occurs in sensory auras.3,6

What triggers attacks with aura?

Migraine with aura is triggered by the same things that trigger migraine without aura. Common triggers include:2

  • Bright lights
  • Certain foods
  • Medicines
  • Stress
  • The menstrual cycle

How do I treat this type of attack?

Treatment for migraine with or without aura is generally the same. Because the aura ends when the migraine ends, treatment focuses on stopping the migraine or relieving the pain. Some of the drugs that are used for migraine are:1,2
Pain relievers, like:

  • Acetaminophen
  • Ibuprofen
  • Aspirin
  • Sumatriptan, a drug that can block pain messages being sent in the brain
  • Dihydroergotamine, a drug that temporarily shrinks the blood vessels in the brain so that they put less pressure on the brain

What should I do if I experience sensory auras?

It is important to tell your doctor if you experience sensory auras. This helps them understand your symptoms better. It also may help them distinguish your auras from other symptoms.3

It is also important to tell your doctor if you experience migraine with auras because they are a risk factor for other serious conditions like strokes. You may want to talk to your doctor about managing risk factors for stroke such as high blood pressure or high cholesterol. If you may become pregnant, you should not use certain birth control methods if you have migraines with aura.5

Migraine with aura can mimic serious conditions like strokes. Oftentimes, sensory auras are mild and then slowly get worse. Strokes, on the other hand, are usually sudden. But this difference is not a guarantee.5

If this is the first time you are experiencing these symptoms or if you are ever concerned, reach out to your doctor or go to the emergency room. Doctors can rule out concerning disorders by:2

  • Asking about your symptoms
  • Examining you
  • Possibly imaging your brain

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