What is Motion Sickness?

My husband and I are headed on our very first cruise this week.  In preparation, I have researched motion sickness.  He gets very sick in boats and I get moderately sick on boats.  Our motion sickness is not limited to boats, but he or I or both get sick on roller coasters, airplanes, IMAX movies, occasional car rides, and apparently while researching motion sickness.  

Just looking at this photo makes me sick. / Photo available via CC0.

What is Motion Sickness?

Motion sickness is brought about by motion, whether it is from riding in a car, train or rollercoaster, on a boat, or in a plane.  It is sometimes referred to as seasickness, airsickness, or car sickness.  But it all describes the same thing.  Symptoms generally include nausea, dizziness, fatigue, and headache.  “Nausea” is actually Greek for seasickness, as “naus” means ship.  If the unlucky person is nauseous, the person may vomit.  And unfortunately, vomiting doesn’t relieve the nausea and the person will continue to vomit until the nausea is treated.  Fun times–who is ready for a cruise?

Motion sickness affects women more often than men and there seems to be a hereditary component to it.  Also, children are usually affected between the ages of 2-12, but sometimes grow out of it.  

Cruising / Photo available via CC0

What Causes Motion Sickness?

Motion Discrepancy

Motion sickness can be caused by motion discrepancies.  For example, if you are reading in a car, you feel motion but don’t see it, as you are focused on the page of the book.  Or you can see the motion outside the car, but your body senses that you aren’t moving.  Another case of seeing motion but not feeling it would be in an IMAX theater while watching a large panoramic scene on the very large screen.

Scientists posit an evolutionary theory to motion discrepancy induced motion sickness.  The theory is that the body detects motion in one sense but not another and induces vomiting to get rid of whatever poison is causing the mismatch in brain function.  

Nystagmus Hypothesis

The Nystagmus Hypothesis suggests that motion sickness is caused by repetitive uncontrolled eye movements.  This movement stimulates the vagus nerve, causing it to overload.  When the vagus nerve becomes overstimulated, it causes nausea and vomiting [1].

Postural Sway

A relatively recent theory was published in 1998 saying that postural sway may be causing motion sickness.  Postural sway is the natural, subtle movements of the body caused by the muscles of your body working in concert to keep you from collapsing into a puddle on the floor.  In new or strange circumstances–on a roller coaster for example–the reflexes that the body has developed to maintain posture no longer work.  This dissonance causes motion sickness.  

Motion discrepancy can cause motion sickness / Photo available via CC0

What can I do?

There are a variety of solutions to motion sickness and you may have to try a few to find one that works.  

Take care of yourself.  Adequate rest, hydration, and nourishment will help you to minimize the effects of motion sickness.  Make sure to avoid greasy or spicy foods and alcohol before and during your trip.  

A common solution is oral medications.  Antihistamines are commonly used, but usually have a side effect of drowsiness.  Dramamine would be an example of one.  

Another medical solution is a transdermal patch applied behind your ear.  Currently available via prescription,the patch delivers medicine through your skin which helps to calm the activity of your inner ear.  

Change your environment.  Eliminate foul odors.  If you can, get to a place that offers fresh and cool air.  Don’t look at someone else that is motion sick, as motion sickness seems to be rather suggestable (I got slightly motion sick while researching and writing this article.  Fun.).   

Change your body.  Stand up, and widen your stance [2] to decrease postural sway.   Or lay down and close your eyes.  Taking a nap can help to reset your stomach and equilibrium.  

Chew.  Chew on some gum, or something else that makes you chew.  The action of chewing seems to help with some symptoms of motion sickness.  

Ginger is also a substance known as antiemetic (a drug used for reducing nausea and vomiting).  Additionally, a 2003 study looked at the effects of ginger on motion sickness and found the ginger helped in both prevention and treatment of motion sickness [3]

Acupressure wrist bands.  These are magical.  The ones we like are called Psi Bands.  We like them because they are waterproof (we usually use them while snorkeling).  There are bracelets made of cloth instead of plastic that may be more comfortable to wear, but get soggy when snorkeling.  They both have a hard plastic button attached to the inside of the band.  To wear the band, the button is held in place against a specific point, about 2-3 finger widths above the wrist crease.  This point is called the Nei-kuan point and is used commonly in acupressure.  Scientists are not sure how this point actually reduces nausea, but some studies have shown reduction in nausea for a variety of conditions as a result of stimulating this point.  I know they work well for both myself and my husband.  We first tried them on a snorkel tour in Hawaii and were both pleasantly surprised at how well they worked.  I took mine off as we were parking the boat, but I was still on the boat.  In just those few minutes that I didn’t have them on, I got pretty queasy.  My husband and I are big fans and rarely travel without them.  This is the first thing I packed for our cruise.  

My well-traveled wrist bands / Photos by Bodymybody.com


Motion sickness can ruin a perfectly good vacation.  With proper preparation and some magical wristbands, you will have the best shot at minimizing motion sickness.  Have fun traveling!


[1] Gupta, Vinod Kumar. “Motion Sickness Is Linked to Nystagmus-related Trigeminal Brain Stem Input: A New Hypothesis.” Medical Hypotheses 64.6 (2005): 1177-181. Medical Hypotheses. Elsevier Inc. Web. 16 Mar. 2017.

[2] Smith, Peter Andrey. “Rethinking Motion Sickness.” Well Blogs. The New York Times, 23 Sept. 2013. Web. 17 Mar. 2017.

[3] Lien, Han-Chung, Wei Ming Sun, Yen-Hsueh Chen, Hyerang Kim, William Hasler, and Chung Owyang. “Effects of Ginger on Motion Sickness and Gastric Slow-wave Dysrhythmias Induced by Circular Vection.” American Journal of Physiology – Gastrointestinal and Liver Physiology 284.3 (2003): G481-489. American Physiological Society. American Physiological Society, 01 Mar. 2003. Web. 16 Mar. 2017.


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