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What is a Basilar Migraine?

By D. Jeffress
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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A basilar migraine is one of the severest types of chronic headache disorder. It can cause debilitating head pain, hearing and vision problems, confusion, and occasionally loss of consciousness. Neurological problems appear to arise in the upper brain stem and affect the large basilar artery in the back of the brain. Basilar migraines are most common in females under the age of 30, but symptoms can potentially arise in either gender at any age. Prescription medications can help control symptoms and reduce the frequency of episodes in most patients.

Unusual vision changes called auras often precede the onset of a basilar migraine. Auras are common with many types of migraine, but the effects are especially noticeable with the basilar variety since the affected artery is so close to the brain's visual cortex. A typical aura comes on about 30 minutes to one hour before other migraine symptoms and can cause light sensitivity, dark or blurry spots in the central vision, distortion of objects, and tunnel vision. In addition, some people experience auditory hallucinations and odd smells during the aura phase.

As the true basilar migraine sets in, vision and hearing problems tend to worsen. A person may have a constant ringing in his or her ears and severe problems seeing, approaching blindness. Nausea, vomiting, throbbing head pain, and loss of balance are common. Severe migraines can cause loss of consciousness, seizures, or stroke. It is essential to seek emergency medical care if a person shows signs of a basilar migraine in order to minimize the risks of permanent brain damage or sudden death.

A neurologist can diagnose a basilar migraine by evaluating reported symptoms, asking about familial history of migraines and stroke, and performing a number of diagnostic tests. Magnetic resonance imaging scans, computerized tomography screens, and electroencephalograms are taken to look for obvious signs of neurological or vascular damage in the brain. The doctor may also perform hearing and vision tests to see if permanent damage has occurred. After ruling out seizure disorders and other types of migraines, the doctor can explain treatment options.

A patient who experiences occasional migraines may be prescribed a high-strength painkiller and muscle relaxer to take at the first signs of an aura in hopes of preventing the impending migraine. People who suffer two or more episodes a month are typically given daily medications called calcium channel blockers to help reduce the frequency. Verapamil and similar calcium channel blockers may not be able to prevent migraines altogether, but most patients do experience significantly longer symptom-free periods between attacks.

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Discussion Comments
By healthy4life — On Sep 30, 2012

It's hard to drive when you have a basilar type migraine. It basically hijacks your body and makes everything go haywire, from your vision to your digestive system. I've had to get a ride home from work on more than one occasion because of a headache like this.

By OeKc05 — On Sep 29, 2012

@orangey03 – It's very possible. I was having basilar migraines while I was in a very bad relationship, and after I got out, I stopped having them.

What frustrated me most about the migraines was the sudden inability to speak correctly. I couldn't think of the words that I wanted to say, and this often happened right in the middle of a fight.

Then, my hands and feet would start to tingle and go numb. I just had to give it up, because I knew what was coming.

Since I've eliminated that stressor from my life, I've been feeling much better. It's so nice to be migraine-free.

By orangey03 — On Sep 29, 2012

My mother suffered from basilar migraine headaches for many years. She went to several doctors and tried many medications, but nothing seemed to help.

Her pain would be so severe that she would have to go get a shot of pain medicine that would knock her out within minutes. She could usually sleep off the migraine this way.

It was really frustrating for her, and after she retired, she finally stopped getting headaches. This makes me wonder if job-related stress caused them.

By Perdido — On Sep 28, 2012

I have friend who has basilar migraine symptoms. He has bad migraines on a regular basis, and some weeks, he has them every day.

Luckily, he can do his job from home, but when the migraines are very severe, he can't even sit up to read. He is really sensitive to sound and to light, so he just goes into a dark bedroom and takes a pain pill to go to sleep.

He has been on calcium channel blockers for awhile, and he has even been involved in some experimental research treatment. The researcher gives him a shot in his neck, and for awhile, this helped, but now, the migraines have returned.

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