My First Migraine with Aura
I work from home in a very sedentary job, staring at bright blue-light emitting computer screens all day, and often much of the night, too. The first time I experienced a migraine with aura a few years ago, I didn’t know what was happening to me and I was worried I might be having a stroke.
It all started about 3 or 4 years ago. I had been working lots of overtime, pulling double shifts, and I was missing out on a lot of sleep. The first time it happened, I was working late, editing a lengthy medical report, staring at small text on a bright white screen when all of a sudden one character in a word became blurry. I could clearly see the characters in the words to the right, left, above, and below, but any point I tried to focus on was completely out of focus, grayed out, if you will.
And then the blurry area grew.
It kept expanding that way, and when I looked over at my husband sitting about 3 feet away from me the blurry area in my vision had grown large enough to blur out his face completely. I couldn’t focus on anything I tried to look at, and I could only see the periphery clearly.
Meanwhile, the blind spot kept growing, and I became increasingly concerned.
I asked my husband to look at my smile and tell me if one side was drooping—a common sign of stroke. Thankfully, he said my smile wasn’t drooping on either side, that it looked normal. I tested my right arm, then my left arm, and I was able to raise and move both arms just fine. I felt a little woozy though, almost like a drunken feeling, and I was having a hard time putting my thoughts together and expressing myself. All of this made me very concerned that even though my smile wasn’t drooping and I could raise and move my arms, I might still be having a stroke.
The growing blurry spot gave way to a curved, zig-zagging, prismatic shimmer off to one side of my field of vision. It was beautiful and distracting.
My husband and I both immediately started investigating online, trying to determine if, in fact, I was having a stroke and needed to seek medical attention, or if something else was going on. He insisted I go lay down and give my eyes a rest while he continued researching. He asked me some questions about my symptoms, and before long we discovered that what I was experiencing was called scintillating scotoma, a feature of both ocular migraines and migraine with aura. These types of migraines are termed ‘complex migraines.’ I thought this was more than a little odd because I had never been a migraine sufferer and only had the occasional sinus headache or tension headache.
The scintillating scotoma would eventually give way to a throbbing headache that felt like absolute misery. It included sensitivity to light, sound, and movement, and was accompanied by nausea. This is called a migraine with aura. The misery lasted 3 days.
At first, I experienced a migraine with aura at least once a day. The shimmering jagged curve would occur on one side or the other. Some days it would happen 2 or 3 times in a single day! Often, they would occur when I was sitting for long hours in front of my computer screens, but not always.
Once it happened while I was driving and I had to pull over and wait it out.
Another time it happened while I was grocery shopping with my high school-aged daughter and I could hardly think straight or speak very clearly. At least this time I knew what was happening so I wasn’t as worried about having a stroke in the middle of the grocery store. Having my daughter with me, who knew right away what was happening, definitely helped a lot that day.
Eventually, it seemed that every few days to a week I’d experience a migraine with aura. Bright or flashing lights were a triggering component at times.
Once in a while, I would experience the scintillating scotoma, but no throbbing headache. Thank goodness for small mercies! This is called an ocular migraine.
Being the inquisitive and determined person that I am, I had to get to the bottom of this. I had never been a migraine sufferer before, and I wasn’t about to accept this as a new ‘normal’ for me. I was reluctant to resort to medications with dangerous side effects, so I began exhaustively searching for credible information on root causes and evidence-based solutions to rid myself of this nuisance once and for all!
Migraine with Aura: Gone but Not Forgotten
I scoured the net for resources to help me understand why this was happening to me, and what I could do to make it stop. I set to work on a process of changing my lifestyle to support my mind, body, and spirit. Finally, my work paid off and my complex migraines went away.
Here’s how I did it:
Steps I Took to Rid Myself of ‘Complex Migraines’
- For starters, I made sleep a priority. I wasn’t getting enough sleep most nights, but didn’t think much of it because I was able to function just fine the next day, or so I thought. Quality and quantity are both important sleep factors, and I wasn’t getting enough of either. I began rearranging my workdays to allow time at night to power down, away from bright screens. I turned off all the lights to make the room as black as possible. I forced myself to go to bed at 10 o’clock so I could get a full 8 hours of sleep before waking at 6 a.m. I set up a chaise lounge in my home office with pillows and a cozy throw blanket so I could power nap during my workday whenever my schedule permitted it. These days, I often do a 12-minute meditation that really helps me power down my mind, body, and spirit so that I can get the most restful, restorative sleep. If you think it sounds too hippie dippie, give it a try and see if you still think so afterward. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.
- When I had the urge to put sunglasses on just to be able to tolerate sitting at my computer, I realized the brightness of my monitors was an issue. My husband researched ultra high resolution computer monitors and found a great set of dual monitors for me. When they arrived, we adjusted the brightness, turning it way down, and adjusted the refresh rate as well.
- I realized I was straining to read at times and that it was time for an eye check. Reading glasses were in order, and I also started using a slightly bigger font. Even though I could still clearly read the characters on my screen at 100%, I found that increasing my font size just a smidge greatly reduced eye strain on those long days in front of the computer. I bought a few pairs, one for my office, one for my purse, and one for my bedside table.
- I adjusted the ergonomics of my work station by bringing my monitors up to eye level. (Putting thick textbooks underneath did the trick.) I read a lot about proper ergonomic alignment of workstations and bought an ergonomic chair designed by a chiropractor. I also started randomly checking my posture throughout my workday to make sure I wasn’t putting strain on my back or my neck, which can cause cervical pressure that can contribute to headaches.
- I began using f.lux, which has an amber/orange overlay for your computer screen that automatically adjusts to the time of day in your time zone. I also downloaded an app called Twilight on my phone to dim my phone screen at night and overlay it with an amber/orange tint, which is better for the eyes and the brain, and has been proven to improve sleep.
- We began changing out most of our light bulbs to amber-colored lights. Bright white lights can interrupt our circadian rhythm, whereas amber light mimics firelight, and is easier on the eyes at night.
- I began adding Epsom salt to my baths, which is high in magnesium, the calming mineral. People with migraines often have lower levels of magnesium than people who don’t have migraines. According to the University of Maryland Medical Center, “In one study, people who took magnesium reduce the frequency of attacks by 41.6%, compared to 15.8% in those who took placebo.”
- I stopped eating anything containing MSG. I thought I had already eliminated MSG from my diet, but I quickly learned that MSG was lurking in some of the foods I was eating, and MSG is known to trigger migraines in some people. Be forewarned, MSG is not always labeled as MSG. Check labels for MSG covertly labeled as:
- Glutamic Acid (E 620)
- Glutamate (E 620)
- Monosodium Glutamate (E 621)
- Monopotassium Glutamate (E 622)
- Calcium Glutamate (E 623)
- Monoammonium Glutamate (E 624)
- Magnesium Glutamate (E 625)
- Natrium Glutamate
- Yeast Extract
- Anything “hydrolyzed”
- Any “hydrolyzed protein”
- Calcium Caseinate
- Sodium Caseinate
- Yeast Food
- Yeast Nutrient
- Autolyzed Yeast
- Textured Protein
- Soy Protein
- Soy Protein Concentrate
- Soy Protein Isolate
- Whey Protein
- Whey Protein Concentrate
- Whey Protein Isolate
- Anything “…protein”
- I stopped eating gluten. I have to admit, I really didn’t expect a gluten to be a contributing factor to my complex migraines, but it turns out that I have a mild gluten sensitivity, and eliminating gluten from my diet for 30 days drastically reduced the frequency and severity of my ocular migraines and migraine with aura.
- I even stopped eating grains. This was hard for me. I love popcorn. I honestly thought it was a healthy whole grain snack. I’d air-pop a big bowl of popcorn, drizzle it with butter and Himalayan pink salt, and then cozy up on the couch with my Viking and we’d enjoy my delicious popcorn while we watched Game of Thrones. But little did I know, popcorn wasn’t my friend, and it was contributing to my migraines. And it’s not just corn, other grains can contribute to migraines too. After ditching the grains I saw a huge improvement.
- The next step was, I stopped eating foods containing orange food-coloring. Goldfish crackers (the ones made with whole grains) used to be an easy snack to much on while I worked. I totally fell for the words ‘whole grain’ on the label and thought they were a more sensible choice. But it didn’t take long before I noticed a correlation between eating Goldfish and then seeing my own private laser light show followed by a throbbing headache that sometimes lasted for days.
- Finally, I learned that I had to stop eating foods containing annatto. I thought I had eliminated all the possible triggers for my weird migraines, including orange food-coloring, but I quickly learned that after eating anything with annatto I’d develop a migraine with aura. I did some research and found that some natural food alternatives to popular foods (like mac and cheese, cheese crackers, etc) contain annatto to give it an orange color. And sure enough, annatto is another migraine triggering food, so I had to nix that as well. No more orange-colored food-like products for this girl!
Unexpected Pleasant Side-Effects From Going Gluten and Grain-Free
- My adult acne finally cleared up! This was a pleasant surprise. I’ve suffered from the occasional cystic acne breakout since I was about 12 years old. Dermatologists had prescribed me Retin-A, tetracycline, doxycycline, expensive creams, lotions, and face washes. Later, I bought Proactiv for years, which seemed to help clear my acne for a while, but I still had some breakouts. I had given up on getting rid of my acne, but ditching gluten, grains, and orange food coloring was what finally did the trick!
- All of a sudden, I could smell everything! Having had allergies and asthma all my life, I had grown pretty accustomed to not being able to smell much. I thought it was normal for me. But as it turns out, gluten and grains were keeping me in a mild chronic allergic state, and that was why I couldn’t smell. Once I stopped eating gluten and grains, my sense of smell returned! This came as a total surprise to me. Living in the desert with my husband, 3 hormonal teenagers, and 3 dogs, regaining my sense of smell has been both a blessing and a curse.
- The constant icky crud in the back of my throat went away! As it turns out, my body had been chronically adversely reacting to the gluten and grains I had been consuming, and I never even knew it! As soon as I stopped eating gluten and grains, I stopped having the thick secretions in my throat that I’d always had.
Here are Some Great Links to Help Banish Migraines
- Migraine Relief Center: 4 Online Tools to Banish Your Migraines
- University of Maryland Medical Center: Migraine Headache
- Advanced Migraine Relief: Tips for Heavy Computer Users
- Williams Integracare Clinic: 5 Office Ergonomics Tips for a Chiropractor-Approved Workspace
- UC Davis Medical Center: Computer Workstation Ergonomics
- Dr. Hyman: How to End Migraines