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Do I Have A Migraine, Or Is This A Stroke?

Posted by Teresa Bitler Dec 11 2014

Strokes and transient ischemic attacks (TIA), or mini-strokes, often have very similar symptoms to migraines with aura: visual disturbances, speech impairment, and muscle weakness. Knowing the difference can save your life.

What is a Migraine?

A migraine is a severe headache that can induce nausea, vomiting, and sensitivity to light, sounds, and smells. In up to 30 percent of all incidents, sufferers experience an aura, or warning, consisting of visual disturbances, numbness, and speech difficulties leading up to their migraine. These warning signs are very similar to the symptoms of a stroke.

What is a Stroke?

A stroke is a brain attack caused by either a blockage or clot in an artery of the brain (ischemic stroke) or by bleeding (hemorrhagic stroke). Stroke symptoms include:

• Numbness or weakness on one side of the body
• Vision loss
• Trouble understanding speech
• Slurred speech
• Headache
• Dizziness
• Disorientation

Subtle Differences in Symptoms

The differences can be subtle, but several factors can help determine if you or a loved one is experiencing a migraine with aura or a stroke.

Sudden vs. gradual. Strokes occur suddenly. One second, you are fine, and then the next, your head hurts, your arm goes numb, and you can’t speak (or any combination of the above symptoms). With migraine aura, the symptoms occur more gradually, evolving over several minutes, and the accompanying headache intensifies to a peak rather than coming on in an instant.

Positive vs. negative visual disturbances. Both migraines and strokes can interfere with vision—it’s what you see (or don’t see) that matters. With a migraine, you experience additional stimuli, such as flashing lights or zigzagging lines, while a stroke detracts from your vision. In fact, with a stroke, you may not realize immediately that your vision has been impaired until you begin bumping into things.

History vs. no history of migraines. Although you can have a migraine for the first time late in life, it’s less common—suffers often have their first migraine as children—and their aura tend to be the same every time. If you have never had a migraine before or if your migraine deviates from its normal course, get to an emergency room as soon as possible to rule out a stroke or TIA.

Err On The Side Of Caution

When in doubt, always err on the side of caution. Call 9-1-1. Immediate medical attention can save your life if you are actually having a stroke.


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