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The Scientific Reason Why Some People Get Motion Sickness—and Others Don’t

If winding roads, bumpy planes, or rocking boats leave you queasy, we’ve got solutions. Here’s the rundown on motion sickness—and ways to prevent it.

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Motion sickness curesPhoto: ShutterStock

What is the root of motion sickness?

Whether you get car sick, sea sick, or light-headed from playing interactive video games, motion sickness is seriously unpleasant. Kinetosis, the official term, can affect both kids and adults at varying levels; some people are especially prone to it. So what exactly is the root of motion sickness?

According to neurologist Timothy Hain, MD, of Chicago Dizziness and Hearing at Northwestern University, motion sickness is caused by conflict between the senses responsible for registering motion. If the eyes, inner ear, and sensory nerves in the skin are all sending different signals to the brain, the crosstalk will leave you feeling dizzy or worse. “When there is conflict between one or more of these signals, for a sufficient time, this triggers motion sickness,” says Dr. Hain.

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Motion sickness can affect children Photo: Shutterstock

Why do some people get it and others don’t?

Much of what there is to know about motion sickness is fairly well-established, but why some people get it while others don’t remains a bit of a scientific mystery. All we know for sure is that some people are more sensitive to the dissonance between what the body is sensing and what is actually happening in terms of motion, according to Susan Besser, MD, who practices primary care and family medicine at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore. Some scientists believe that sensitivity may run in families. Others believe the sensitivity may be acquired, or eliminated, as the case may be. For example, babies and children often grown out of car sickness. And Murray Grossan, MD points out that while Chinese natives tend to get train sick, Chinese-Americans tend not to; he explains that in China, there is less opportunity to acclimate to the sensations that cause motion sickness than there is in America. He also points out that ice skaters are less likely to experience car sickness. What all these theories have in common is dissonance, Tom Stoffregen, PhD, a professor of kinesiology at the University of Minnesota, pointed out to the Atlantic, between what the body is used to and what it’s experiencing.

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Feeling queasy in the car at a red lightPhoto: Shutterstock

Car queasy

In a recent interview with BuzzFeed, Jane Rosenman, MD, a pediatrician at Mayo Clinic Children’s Center, explained why some individuals feel dizzy or nauseous from reading while riding in a car or bus. “Their eyes are focusing on a steady (non-moving) thing, the book, but the inner ear senses motion, so your brain gets confused and you feel sick,” she says.

According to Dr. Hain, drivers have an advantage over passengers because they can anticipate what is coming next—they see the stop light; the cars in front of them. They know when they are pushing on the brake and when to brace for a turn. “Anticipation substitutes for sensory experience and prevents motion sickness. Drivers have a far more accurate ‘internal estimate’ than passengers; making them less dependent on external senses, and also less motion sick.”

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Ride shotgun if you have motion sicknessPhoto: ShutterStock

Sit shotgun

If you tend to get car sick and you can’t be the driver, the second best place to be is the passenger seat, says Hain. Keep your gaze focused on the road ahead, and you’ll be able to anticipate the twists and turns, stops and starts. “This is not quite as good as the driver, but it still may help a lot,” Dr. Hain explains. “If you go over a bump, the car goes up and down the same as your vision. The two senses match, which prevents sensory conflict and motion sickness.”

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Motion sickness cures work for sea sickness tooPhoto: ShutterStock

Motion sickness cures

Your best bet is to stop if you can, recommends Dr. Hain. Not possible? Try looking at something outside that is still, in front of you, so that your ears and eyes get similar information. “Do not put your head between your legs if you feel dizzy—that’s for low blood pressure.” Also, don’t reach for water if you feel nauseous or dizzy due to motion sickness—it could make you even more nauseous.

There are medications that reduce inner-ear sensitivity: meclizine—which is over the counter—and scopolamine patches, available via prescription.

Scopolamine (the patch) is generally effective, but it’s not suitable for chronic use,” warns Dr. Hain. “Generally, scopolamine is not used for kids under age 12 because kids are more likely to stick their hands on the patch and then rub their eyes, which gives them a dilated pupil. The main problem with scopolamine is that some people get addicted to it; whenever they try to stop, they get sick; which is why it’s designed for three days of use at a time.”

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Originally Published on Reader's Digest