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Even NASA Doesn’t Know Exactly What Causes Motion Sickness (But There Is a Way to Avoid It)

Under the right conditions, motion sickness can cripple just about anyone (trust NASA, they've tried). But while don't know much about why it happens, advances in curing it are progressing steadily

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You’ve probably had that feeling. You’re traveling along in the car. You start to feel a little dizzy, light-headed. Your stomach knots and, if you’re unlucky, you lose your lunch. Under the right conditions, motion sickness can cripple just about anyone. (Trust NASA, they’ve tried.) But while don’t know much about why it happens, advances in curing it are progressing steadily.

According to Scientific American, which spoke with James Locke, a flight surgeon at NASA whose job is to make people sick, the current theory for how motion sickness works goes like this:

“Information from both our visual and vestibular systems is processed by the brain to match it all up. Your vestibular system—your inner ear—is tuned to a terrestrial, 1G environment,” Locke says. “When you move around, changes in your vestibular system match up with what you’re seeing. But in an airplane or car, your inner ear signals that you’re moving, but your eye says you’re sitting still” because your body is not moving in relation to its immediate environment—such as the seat you’re sitting in, the back of the seat in front of you and the floor beneath your feet.

Humans aren’t the only ones to get motion sick, either. Ernest Shackleton’s ponies reportedly got seasick on their way to Antarctica, and pet owners can attest to the amount of vomit pets can produce during car rides. One researcher actually put goldfish into an airplane and had the plane nosedive. The fish did not seem happy afterwards.

So what can we do about it? Well, if you’re an astronaut you train your body to accept a disconnect between what you see and what you feel. Scientific American writes:

“One of the best countermeasures for motion sickness is adaptation,” says Catherine Webb, a research psychologist with the U.S. Army Aeromedical Research Laboratory in Fort Rucker, Ala. She notes that about 95 percent of people will eventually adapt to a motion environment, citing single-day intervals between brief motion sessions as the optimal pacing.

NASA is also developing anti-motion sickness medication to keep the queasiest from losing it on the space ship. But if you’re not NASA, what can you do? The New York Times has some tips:

1. Stop watching that movie, and listen to music:

In this age of nonstop engagement with personal technology, a recommendation from Dr. Abinash Virk, the director of the travel and tropical medicine clinic at Mayo Clinic, in Rochester, Minn., is refreshing. “Spacing out is great,” Dr. Virk said. “Your brain is having to deal with input from ears and eyes. The more you try to do the more likely you’ll get nauseated.”

2. Take some medicine:

There are several drugs that can be useful. A prescription-only scopolamine patch — worn behind an ear — reduces nausea associated with motion sickness, studies have shown. But its side effects include dry mouth and blurred vision. That said, the patch lasts three days, making it convenient for the seasick-prone on a Caribbean cruise. However, children under the age of 18 should not use a scopolamine patch as it can cause “terrible toxicity,” said Dr. Sydney Spiesel, a clinical professor of pediatrics at Yale University School of Medicine. It should also not be used by anyone who has or has had glaucoma.

3. Take your chances with “alternative-medicines”:

Ginger has been shown to prevent nausea associated with motion sickness, so pack powdered-ginger capsules, crystallized ginger or even ginger Altoids. Some motion-sickness sufferers wear acupressure bands, which have a plastic stud that has to be positioned correctly on the inner wrist, to help keep nausea at bay. But evidence proving their efficacy is mixed. Still, at $10 or less each (Sea-band, for instance) there’s little downside to trying them, and if they work for you, they are reusable.

4. Be ready to vomit:

Or there’s the Hurl-e, also known as the CarSik bib, which is a hands-free bag for those who may succumb to vomiting. Costing $10.74 for a six-pack, bags have a strap so they can be worn like a bib, and make cleaning up a cinch. A YouTube video about the CarSik bib touts its virtues this way: “Drive with peace of mind knowing that if your child gets carsick it will stay clean and dry and you won’t have to deal with the mess.”

Because sometimes, there’s just nothing you can do.

More from Smithsonian.com:

Finding the Eye of the Whirlpool

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About Rose Eveleth
Rose Eveleth

Rose Eveleth is a writer for Smart News and a producer/designer/ science writer/ animator based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Scientific American, Story Collider, TED-Ed and OnEarth.

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