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What Causes Motion Sickness?

Tricia Christensen
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Motion sickness is often attributed to lack of synchronicity between what the eyes see and what the ears hear. So for example, if you’re in a car reading a book, the bumps along the road that you hear confuse the brain. You’re stationary in your seat, but your ears communicate that you should be moving. This confusion can result in flushing, excess sweating, nausea, and in worse cases, you have to pull the car over and throw up.

Some things that appear to help motion sickness are driving, since then your eyes and ears are working cooperatively, or sitting in the front seat where you can watch the road. If you get sick on a ship, it's best to stay in the middle portion of the ship, which tends to rock less. Medications for this condition are typically either anti-nausea medications antihistamines, or tranquilizers, which often block the nausea response.

While this theory on why motion sickness has occurred has been generally accepted, there remain questions about why some people get this condition while others don’t. Further, why do some groups seem more susceptible than others? Children from 3-10, women who are pregnant or menstruating, and women in general, by in large, tend to be most affected by these symptoms. Further, why does the stomach respond to brain confusion in this matter?

In 2006, Tom Stoffregen, a professor in the School of Kinesiology at University of Minnesota began studying motion sickness from a new perspective. Instead of eye/ear confusion, Stoffregen focused on studying students who were not in moving situations by changing visual perceptions, sometimes quickly. Some students even played X-box games in order to observe whether visual perception alone could influence this condition.

His findings are extremely interesting, and may offer help to those who suffer from motion sickness. He notes that people who got sick always moved, and sometimes in strange ways. They might wriggle, even if they were firmly secured to a chair or wall, or they would move their heads, their fingers, and their feet. In tests where students were not secured and had the option to move, those who moved always began to have traditional motion sickness symptoms.

This finding is fascinating since it suggests that the combination of a person’s movement and visual perception may be more to blame for motion sickness than eye/ear confusion. A pregnant woman might adjust her body several times to get comfortable during a car trip, as might a woman with cramps. Naturally, one walks around on cruise ships, which suggests higher incidence of motion sickness among all groups. If Stoffregen’s theories are right, then combating this condition, especially in a car, may mean trying to remain as still as possible.

Stoffregen’s theory might also explain why certain medications like antihistamines appear to help. A person taking meclizine or benadryl, for example, tends to be pretty drowsy, which might calm restless movement. People who are helped by tranquilizers tend to have a similar reaction and may not feel the need to fidget.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a The Health Board contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.
Discussion Comments
By anon122633 — On Oct 28, 2010

Who wrote this article?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a The Health Board contributor, Tricia...
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