I would estimate that about 75 percent of vehicular transportation makes me want to throw up. Literally. My fellow commuters are safe on my morning bus ride, but if I’m in a car for too long, if I’m on a turbulent flight, or—god forbid—if I’m on a boat, watch out.
For my entire life, I’ve suffered from motion sickness. We had to pull over during family road trips because I’d surely be nauseated after about an hour. When I go scuba diving, the boat ride makes me so ill that the thought of staying underwater for an hour is actually a blessing. And don’t even get me started on helicopters. I’m not alone in my misery; judging by the number of Sea-Bands sold in resorts’ sundry stores and barf bags tucked into the seat pockets on airplanes, plenty of other people get motion sickness, too.
What causes motion sickness, anyway?
The body achieves its sense of balance by analyzing what we see and what we hear. That sensory input tells the brain whether the body is moving or stationary, how fast it might be traveling, and what direction it’s going in. Occasionally, the information from the eyes conflicts with the information from the ears, such as when we’re in a car, boat, or another moving vehicle—the eyes say we’re sitting, but the ears know we’re moving. Sometimes the opposite situation can cause motion sickness—if you’ve ever gotten ill after watching a movie with shaky camera work, it’s because the visual stimuli say that the body is moving, but the ears think it’s not. On a boat, your eyes may not see the pitching and rolling motions the craft is making, but your inner ear feels the movement. Whenever the stimuli don’t agree on what’s going on, the result is motion sickness.
Why is it worse when I’m reading?
Although people’s attempts to pass long car trips by cracking open a book are understandable, reading actually intensifies the disparity between the visual stimuli and the aural stimuli. By concentrating on a single, fixed object, your eyes become more convinced you’re stationary, even though your ears know you’re moving.
Why is it worse in the backseat?
If you’re the driver of a car, you’re (hopefully) watching the road, so your eyes know you’re moving as well as your ears do, but as a passenger in the backseat, you’re more likely to be gazing at fixed objects within the car. Also, if there isn’t adequate airflow, the backseat can tend to get stuffier, which only exacerbates the symptoms of motion sickness.
Why are some people more susceptible than others?
Anyone can get motion sickness, regardless of age, sex, or general stomach sensitivity. However, it’s a bit more likely to occur when a person is traveling in an unfamiliar vehicle. Someone who flies regularly may be used to planes but could still get nauseated when traveling occasionally by train or boat. If the brain hasn’t had a chance to acclimate, motion sickness is worse. Some studies show that women tend to be slightly more prone to motion sickness than men are, for reasons that aren’t quite clear. People who suffer from migraine headaches also experience motion sickness more than average. Children are generally regarded as the most at-risk group, possibly because they tend to ride in the backseat, where their small stature forces them to look at seemingly immobile objects in the car, or perhaps because their young brains haven’t yet acclimated to the sensation of travel. Whatever the reason, most doctors conclude that children’s sensitivity peaks before puberty and then declines.
Adults who are predisposed to motion sickness may have an as-yet-undiscovered genetic propensity, or they could simply have travel habits that make them more likely to get sick. People who read on planes or in cars, people who smoke, and people who get anxious while traveling all experience more motion sickness than others.
Besides taking drugs, is there any way to prevent motion sickness?
Some people choose to treat their nausea with Dramamine or other sleep-inducing medications, but there are many nonchemical ways to manage motion sickness. If you’re in a car, try to sit in the front seat, and keep the air vents open and flowing. Don’t smoke, don’t read, and keep your head still by resting it against the seat. Keep your eyes on the horizon so that you can see where you’re going and so the information from your eyes will match the information from your ears.
On a boat, center yourself by focusing on a fixed point in the distance: an island, a building onshore, or the horizon. As many a scuba divemaster has counseled me, “Don’t look at the boat; look at the land, because the land doesn’t move.” On an airplane, try to get a seat in the front of the plane or near the wing, the areas with the least amount of movement.
Some people swear by the wristbands that claim to cure motion sickness by pressing on the P6 acupressure point on the inner arm, about two inches above the wrist. Several studies have shown that pressure on this point can help relieve nausea and vomiting, and many doctors agree about its therapeutic benefits, even for morning sickness or postsurgery nausea. However, since acupressure is mostly a feature of Eastern or complementary medicine, some experts have their doubts as to the bands’ efficacy and believe that any relief from using them is simply the result of the placebo effect.
Motion sickness won’t kill you, of course, but it can make any journey a whole lot more miserable. Preventing it is easier than trying to cure it once it’s set in, and simple behavioral modifications work just fine to keep the queasies away. The next time you’re settling in for a long trip by plane, train, or automobile, just sit up, get some air, and breathe deep. And if you’re sitting next to me, you might want to wear a raincoat.
Updated March 10, 2011