Motion sickness is uncomfortable
that people experience when their sense of balance and equilibrium is
disturbed because their brain cannot make sense of conflicting information
about their body's location in space and motion in their
Motion sickness is connected to the role of the sensory organs. The
sensory organs control a body's sense of balance by telling the
brain what direction the body is pointing, the direction it is moving, and
if it is standing still or turning. These messages are relayed by the
inner ear (or labyrinth); the eyes; the skin pressure receptors (such as
in those in the feet), the muscle and joint sensory receptors, which track
what body parts are moving to the central nervous system (the brain and
spinal cord). The brain then is responsible for processing all incoming
information and making sense out of it. Riding in a car, being on a ship,
or taking an amusement park ride can cause conflicting stimulation of the
different sense organs. The result is motion sickness.
For example, when reading a book in the back seat of a moving car, the
inner ears and skin receptors sense the motion, but the eyes register only
the stationary pages of the book. This conflicting information may cause
the usual motion sickness symptoms of dizziness, nausea, and vomiting.
While motion sickness can be bothersome, it is not a serious illness, and
it can be prevented.
Although nearly 80 percent of the general population experiences motion
sickness at one time in their lives, children between the ages of four and
ten are most vulnerable. Children often out grow motion sickness. Toddlers
under age two are rarely motion sick. Adults who frequently get migraine
headaches are more likely than others to have recurrent episodes of motion
Researchers at the Naval Medical Center in San Diego, California, reported
in 2003 that 70 percent of research subjects with severe motion sickness
had abnormalities of the vestibular system. Research also suggests that
some people inherit a predisposition to motion sickness. This
predisposition is more marked in some ethnic groups than in others. One
study published in 2002 found that persons of Chinese or Japanese ancestry
are significantly more vulnerable to motion sickness than persons of
Causes and symptoms
While all of the body's sensory organs contribute to motion
sickness, excess stimulation to the vestibular system within the inner ear
(the body's balance center) has been shown to be one of the primary
reasons for this condition. Balance problems (vertigo) are often caused by
a conflict between what is seen and how the inner ear perceives it,
leading to confusion in the brain. This confusion may result in higher
heart rates, rapid breathing, nausea and sweating, along with dizziness
Additional factors that may contribute to the occurrence or severity of
motion sickness include the following:
Often viewed as a minor annoyance, some travelers are temporarily
immobilized by motion sickness, and a few continue to feel its effects for
hours and even days after a trip.
Most cases of motion sickness are mild and self-limiting. Parents should
call the doctor before giving young children over-the-counter medications
for motion sickness. Some remedies are recommended only for older
Most cases of motion sickness are self-diagnosed. If symptoms such as
dizziness become chronic, a doctor may be able to help alleviate the
discomfort by looking further into a patient's general health.
Questions regarding medications, head injuries, recent infections, and
other questions about the ear and neurological system will be asked. An
examination of the ears, nose, and throat, as well as tests of nerve and
balance function, may also be performed.
Severe cases of motion sickness or those that become progressively worse
may require additional, specific tests. Diagnosis in these situations
deserves the attention and care of a doctor with specialized skills in
diseases of the ear, nose, throat, equilibrium, and neurological system.
Medications to help ease the symptoms of motion sickness are available
without a prescription (over-the-counter or OTC). Normally these are taken
30 to 60 minutes before traveling to prevent motion sickness symptoms, as
well as during extended trips.
The following OTC drugs contain ingredients that are considered by the
United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to be safe and effective
for the treatment of motion sickness:
The FDA recommends that people with emphysema, chronic
, glaucoma, or difficulty urinating due to an enlarged prostate do not use
OTC drugs for motion sickness unless directed by their doctor. Children
should not be given OTC motion sickness medication without first checking
with a healthcare professional.
Longer trips may require a prescription medication called scopolamine
available in the form of a skin patch or gel that is rubbed on the skin.
Another prescription drug that is sometimes given for motion sickness is
ondansetron (Zofran), which was originally developed to treat nausea
. It appears to be safe for use in children under the age of six. In March
2003, the FDA approved a new anti-emetic (anti-nausea) drug. Known as
aprepitant, it is sold under the brand name Emend.
) in its various forms is often used to calm the stomach, and the oils it
contains (gingerols and shogaols) appear to relax the intestinal tract in
addition to mildly depressing the central nervous system. Some of the most
effective forms of ginger are the powdered, encapsulated form; ginger tea
prepared from sliced ginger root; and candied pieces. All forms of ginger
should be taken on an empty stomach.
Placing manual pressure on the Neiguan or Pericardium-6 acupuncture point
(located about three finger-widths above the wrist on the inner arm),
either by acupuncture, acupressure, or a mild, electrical pulse, has shown
to be effective against the symptoms of motion sickness. Elastic
wristbands sold at most drugstores are
also used as a source of relief due to the pressure they place in this
area. Pressing the small intestine 17 (just below the earlobes in the
indentations behind the jawbone) may also help in the functioning of the
ear's balancing mechanism.
There are several homeopathic remedies that work specifically for motion
sickness. They include
Motion sickness is not a serious disorder and almost always resolves once
the conflicting motion messages have stopped.
Because motion sickness is easier to prevent than treat once it has begun,
the best treatment is prevention. The following steps may help deter the
unpleasant symptoms of motion sickness before they occur:
Even those who frequently endure motion sickness can learn to travel by
anticipating the conditions of their next trip. Research also suggests
that increased exposure to the stimulation that causes motion sickness may
help decrease symptoms on future trips.
—Often described as acupuncture without needles, acupressure is a
traditional Chinese medical technique based on theory of
(life energy) flowing in energy meridians or channels in the body.
Applying pressure with the thumb and fingers to acupressure points can
relieve specific conditions and promote overall balance and health. Also
known as dian xue.
—Based on the same traditional Chinese medical foundation as
acupressure, acupuncture uses sterile needles inserted at specific
points to treat certain conditions or relieve pain.
—A preparation or medication that relieves nausea and vomiting.
Cola syrup, ginger, and motion sickness medications are examples of
—A feeling of dizziness together with a sensation of movement and
a feeling of rotating in space.
—The brain and parts of the inner ear that work together to
detect movement and position.
ABBE Research Division Staff.
Air, Sea, and Car Motion
Sickness: Index and Analysis of New Knowledge.
Washington, DC: A B B E Publishers Association, 2004.
Motion Sickness: A Medical Dictionary, Bibliography, and An
Annotated Research Guide to Internet References.
San Diego, CA: Icon Group International, 2004.
Pelletier, Kenneth R.
The Best Alternative Medicine.
New York: Simon and Schuster, 2002.
Black, F. O. "Maternal Susceptibility to Nausea and Vomiting of
Pregnancy: Is the Vestibular System Involved?"
American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology
185 (May 2002)(Supplement 5): S204–9.
Hoffer, M. E., et al. "Vestibular Testing Abnormalities in
Individuals with Motion Sickness."
Otology and Neurotology
24 (July 2003): 633–6.
O'Brien, C. M., et al. "A Comparison of Cyclizine,
Ondansetron, and Placebo as Prophylaxis against Postoperative Nausea and
Vomiting in Children."
58 (July 2003): 707–11.
Vestibular Disorders Association.
PO Box 4467, Portland, OR 97208–4467. Web site:
Hamid, Mohamed, and Nicholas Lorenzo. "Dizziness, Vertigo, and
, October 28, 2004. Available online at
http://www.emedicine.com/neuro/topic693.htm (accessed January 12,
Keim, Samuel, and Michael Kent. "Vomiting and Nausea."
, July 13, 2004. Available online at
http://www.emedicine.com/aaem/topic476.htm (accessed January 12,