Migraines and Visual Auras

Hubert Airys Illustration

My senior year of college was the beginning of a strange chapter in my life of visual perception.  It was also one of the scariest experiences of my life as I was coping with constant panic attacks, digestive tract issues, and the experience of being left by someone I loved.  These things plus the stress of college life and the expectations of the athletic teams I played for culminated into an experience that had my family and doctors scanning my brain for imperfections and tumors.

It was a gorgeous day in Westchester, NY as I went inside for a team meeting for the basketball team.  Sarah Lawrence College was bringing back competitive basketball and I was proud to be a part of it…while also fully aware of how terrible we were as a team.  It wasn’t about winning though, it was about playing…and I loved playing with those guys.  I had just wrapped a succesful season in tennis where my best buddy Kurt and I had won the Hudson Valley Tournament in #2 Doubles.  I was an anomaly at SLC…an art geek with a passion and propensity for sports.  There were no thunderous crowds at our sporting events – our spectators were writing poetry, choreographing dances, filming scenes, and gorgeously singing from the stage.  It didn’t matter, sports were my outlet for my aggression and I felt phenomenal off the court when I spent time on the court.

I sat down for the meeting in the lounge as we discussed strategy for the upcoming game.  When we shifted to the clerical stuff I found that I simply could not keep my head in the conversation.  Things sounded far off in the distance…muddled…foreign.  I knew the words, I knew they were sentences, but they felt empty and without meaning.  I must be tired, I thought.  Then I noticed the spot in my vision.  At first I thought I had looked directly into a light and had burned my vision…like when someone take s a picture with a flash camera.  Strange…it doesn’t seem to be going away.  Did it get brighter in here?  Then I realized something strange was going on, the spot in my vision was clearly not a burned spot from light but rather some sort of black hole of information.  I felt like my vision was fractured, like cracks in a mirror I was seeing the image but some of the visual was missing.  The spot grew, my vision became more fractured, and tiny zigzags of flashing light began to creep into my peripheral vision.  I began having a panic attack.

I don’t feel well, I’m going back to my dorm,” I said like a robot as I got up and walked out of the meeting nervously.  The panic attack swelled.  I walked through the aisles of the sports center as I felt my body losing touch with reality.  My vision fractured further, sound became foreign, and I could not interpret the things I was looking at.  I just need to get back to my dorm and go to bed, I told myself.  I made it to my truck, backed up, pulled out, and went about twenty feet when all of a sudden the zigzag flashing lines overtook my vision and I went almost completely blind!  My vision was covered in fluttering static!  Flashes of light, tingling in my face, weakness in my limbs, and of course panic!  I threw my car in park and left it in the middle of the road as I ran back inside the sports complex.  I placed my hand on the glass at the check-in counter and shouted “something is wrong!”  I then fell to the ground and blacked out.

When I came to I was being given oxygen by the fire department and getting loaded into the back of an ambulance.  I thought I had a stroke or a heart attack.  No one knew what was going on.  The hospital found nothing wrong and released me the next day.  My family sent me in for MRI’s, ct scans, and an assortment of tests that scared me even further.  Terms like “brain tumor,” were tossed around and then “cancer” was proposed as a possible culprit.  All test came back negative.

Almost a year later…it happened again while I was on set directing Gagsters.  This time it left a little spot of lost information behind that fluttered in my left eye all the time…at least it seemed like all the time.  Maybe I have had too many concussions in my life from sports and snowborading?  There was that time I got my head split open with a baseball bat above my left eye when I was 7!  That must be it!  What is going on?  Then I started noticing dark shapes floating in my vision: vitreous floaters.  I assumed they were common (and they are) but the more I talked to my friends about the amount I had the more I began to realize I had an abnormally large amount.  I booked an appointment with an eye doctor in NYC and made a discovery that changed my panic attacks overnight.

Seizure of the optic nerve,” he said.  “What?  Is it serious?” I asked.  He went on to tell me it was common and how everyone has at least one in their lifetime, more likely hundreds but it happens while they are asleep and they don’t know it.  He told me a story of a friend of his that had to quit his practice because they happened so frequently that he could no longer be a surgeon.  He dilated my eyes, took a look, and found that I did have some interesting scar tissue in my left eye from the baseball bat accident and an abnormal amount of vitreous floaters for a person in their 20’s.  He told me it should be fine, check in every 10 years, and not to worry so much.  Knowing that the condition was not serious made me not have panic attacks with the seizures which in turn made them less severe and I was better at coping with them.  They did however leave me with a spliting headache after…sometimes for days

Yesterday I had the second occurence in a two-week span.  That is very frequent for me.  I usually have 3-4 occurences a year.  This frequency led me to doing more research and it was extremely revealing, the internet has grown quite a bit since the 90’s.  I found that what I have been referring to as a “seizure of the optic nerve” is incorrect.  I am having a visual aura preceding a migraine.  Now, the optic nerve may be the catalyst to the migraine but the experience of the aura is what has been freaking me out the most in the past.  The visual experience I have is that of a Scintillating Scotoma, part of the Fortification Spectra.  When I began reading this last night I began jumping up and down because it is exactly what is going on with me!  Then I saw this video:


It was as if someone had made that video based entirely on my description of the sypmtoms…it was freeing to know I am not alone.  Not only am I not alone but I know what is going on!  Thank you internet!  I read about the 4 phases:

  1. Prodrome
  2. Aura
  3. Attack
  4. Postdrome

I am currently in postdrome and can relate to it completely.  The hard one to decipher is prodrome but that is where it gets interesting.  My stomach has been so off for the past 2 months that I have been hyper aware of everything going on in my body.  I think my ongoing battle with reflux and IBS is directly related to my migraines.  I have shown classic symptoms of prodrome over the weekend leading up to the attack and I think my stomach issues and my diet are the trigger.  Increased acid and reflux.  I have looked back at the auras I logged in the past and they are always in sync with logs for my stomach and GI.  Most interesting of all is that my sophomore year of college was the first time I went to see a GI Doctor for chronic stomach issues…a year and half later I’m in the back of an ambulance heading to the Bronxville Hospital. Check out this article about migraines and diet: http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/migraines/AN01874.

Knowledge is part of the battle, now I need ot find a better way to treat it.  The stomach is the first step and I’m starting from scratch with research in two weeks.  My vision always feels like it is on the verge or fracturing and I have found myself struggling more and more to decipher things in front of me.  I have 20/15 in my left eye and 20/25 in my right.  My reflex reaction time is phenomenal.  I can see things at a distance that the average man cannot…yet I am struggling to see.  The flutter in my left eye is always there.  I see things in my peripheral all the time.  My mind plays tricks on me.  At the risk of sounding crazy I have recently seen sparks of blue light flash from my body…maybe I’m a superhero…maybe I’m just seeing crazy stuff because of an aura in my brain.  Superhero would be nice but I’m too fat for spandex.  Aura it is.

A great animation of a visual aura: http://www.knownjohnson.com/?p=73

If you are seeing some crazy stuff like me…you are not alone.  It might just be a migraine and you need to eat less chocolate, cheese, and beer.  Or maybe you’re crazy.  Post a comment and share your discoveries and/or insecurities about migraines, visual auras, and diet associated with them so we can discuss them together.

4 thoughts on “Migraines and Visual Auras

  1. Has anyone suggested eliminating nitrates (all deli, pickled fish, etc. etc) and foods containing red and yellow food dyes from your diet? Might be a simple answer.
    My younger son and I have nitrate and food dye sensitivities, (hot dogs the worst culprits, ham, beef jerky) causing epileptiform migraine, flashers, scotomas, in his case vision disappears from the left half of his left eye. He played several hockey games with it, relying on his hearing to sense approaching checkers!! I completed a 50K cycle tour with recurring flashers – didn’t affect balance too much.
    Panic over concern the symptoms can be caused by serious disease more than caused by the syndrome itself.

  2. Try to take organic feverfew (capsule form unless you enjoy a bitter, herbal tea) everyday. Not only can it help treat migranes, but it can prevent them if taken on a daily basis! As for stomach issues, my grandfather took one tbsp of olive oil to help with stomch pain, I focus more on consuming organic food as much as possible (it really does help the body), getting enough soluble and insoluable fiber everyday and yoga…
    I studies herbalism for 3 years…if you have any interest I can recommend other herbs and foods to help you!
    (Bach’s rescue remedy is also helpful for mild anxiety…and is safe for people and pets no matter what meds they may be on!)

  3. Dude, I get this too. You SO are not alone 😛
    I have to avoid peanut butter & avocado, and limit bananas to 1/2 if I have one. Maybe pay attention to what you are eating – I used to have a list of foods to avoid. Nitrates are definitely one category. I’m sure you can find a comprehensive list online. Good luck!

  4. I get these too! It’s gotten better since changing my diet to only whole foods, I cut out caffeine and most sugars as well. I hadn’t really noticed any of the prodome symptoms, but now I’ll look out for them. I do get the visual aura and that’s how I know one is coming. I have tons of floaters, but never really associated it with my migraines and I don’t get my eyes dilated as often as most people, because this seems to trigger migraines for me. Hope you find some answers, I know most doctors just want to give me medicine and send me on my way, but I’d rather treat the problem where it starts.

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