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Stop motion sickness in its tracks

Recently, we spoke with Robert F. Yacavone, MD, a gastroenterologist at Tufts Medical Center, to get some answers about motion sickness.

“Motion sickness is not an illness or a disease,” Dr. Yacavone pointed out.  “It is a syndrome – a collection of symptoms that occur in certain situations.”

The Cause

We often associate motion sickness with automobiles, aircraft and ships.  But, some people experience symptoms on simulators, like ones found at amusement parks, or with video games.

Why?

Motion sickness occurs when the brain receives conflicting information regarding motion and position from the inner ear, eyes, and nerves.

“In general, motion sickness symptoms come on because of a discrepancy in signals that are being sent to the brain regarding the presence or absence of movement,” said Dr. Yacavone. “We know that certain types of movement – low frequency, side to side or up and down, like a ship, plane or car – are most likely to cause motion sickness.”

Symptoms include: nausea, sweats, headaches, light-headedness, vomiting, fatigue or appetite loss.  Fortunately, while these symptoms are unpleasant and uncomfortable, in most people they are not serious.

“Of course, anyone who experiences dizziness can fall down and get injured.  Anyone who vomits could aspirate and get pneumonia. But, those incidences are really uncommon,” said Dr. Yacavone.

Who is Affected?

ANYONE, is the short answer. But, physicians know that more women suffer from motion sickness than men. And, because of hormonal factors, pregnant women are particularly susceptible.  

Dr. Yacavone said motion sickness may be more likely at certain times in a woman’s menstrual cycle or if they are taking an oral contraceptive. “Again, whether it has to do with hormonal or other factors is unclear.”

“We do know that people who are more sensitive to sensory stimulation, such as those who suffer from migraines, are more prone to motion sickness,” he said.

What all of the triggering situations have in common is what’s referred to as “passive motion,” said Dr. Yacavone.  “Something else is creating our motion.  The visual inputs, for example, are giving the brain a different signal than, let’s say, our inner ear.  That imbalance is what will cause motion sickness.”

Prevalence in Children 

Kids become increasingly prone to motion sickness from ages two through 12.  Babies and toddlers are typically resistant, according to Dr. Yacavone.  And, after age 12, it comes less common.

Prevention

Stopping the symptoms of motion sickness before they ever begin is the name of the game.  And, there are plenty of preventative steps:

Modify your environment:  Do put yourself in a place where you can see the horizon and movement, i.e.:  the front seat of a car or the deck of a cruise ship.  Don’t read a book or watch a television screen while a car is moving.  Retreating to the cabin of a ship and staring at a wall isn’t a good idea either.
Participate in the production of movement:  Drive, if you are able, or at least sit in the front seat and look out the window.
Position:  Lying down flat or moving your head as little as possible can help.
Avoid:  Do not drink alcohol or eat a heavy meal before traveling.  And, don’t eat during short trips.  Strong odors and spicy foods have been found to trigger motion sickness.

Medications & Remedies

“There are several classes of medications that can be helpful,” said Dr. Yacavone.  “What they have in common is that they are all used to suppress those conflicting signals.”  

Antihistamines (Benadryl, Dramamine):  available over the counter.
Anticholinergic (Scopolamine):  available in a patch and placed behind the ear by prescription .
Antiemetics:  for nausea and vomiting, also by prescription

The drawback of these medications can be the sedating or drowsy effect.  Others result in dry eyes, dry mouth, mild dizziness or urinary retention.  Dr. Yacavone explained that, in some cases, caffeine could be beneficial in counteracting the symptoms of drowsiness.

A few alternative remedies include ginger, acupressure, and magnets, positioned at acupressure points around the wrist–although, Dr. Yacavone cautioned that there really are no studies to demonstrate the effectiveness of magnets.

No matter what you call it --car sickness, sea sickness, plane sickness – Dr. Yacavone emphasizes that once the motion sickness comes on, it is hard to stop so prevention is more effective than treatment.