No-Spin Zone: How to Fight Motion Sickness by Sea, Land and Air

(By Ken Orvidas For The Washington Post)
By Melanie D.G. Kaplan
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, September 6, 2009

I have turned green riding over giant sand dunes in Qatar, become queasy kayaking between the Virgin Islands and puked on a flight to Peru. There are few places I can travel, including across the dance floor via pirouette, where I don't risk feeling some symptoms of motion sickness.

I'm in good company. Many people suffer from motion sickness at some point in their lives, and according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, all individuals will succumb given sufficient stimulus: the roughest seas, the sharpest turns and the bumpiest flights. Yet the inner ear -- the root of sea-, car- and airsickness -- remains a mystery to most of us. So after my humiliating Peru flight last year, I set out to learn how -- short of surgically removing my vestibular system, the body's balance center -- to prevent a recurrence.

I didn't get far, and Richard Jennings explained why.

"People have been getting motion sickness since they were riding on camels," said Jennings, the director of the University of Texas Medical Branch's aerospace medicine program. "And we don't have many more answers today than we did then. Any time there are 20 different remedies, it probably means none of them are that great."

When our bodies experience motion sickness, they are -- oddly enough -- responding the way they would to poison (i.e., back when humans were eating wild berries, regurgitating the toxic ones helped us survive). The motion sensors in our inner ear perceive that something's out of whack (as they do when vestibular information and visual information are in conflict), so they send out an APB for the body to remove the "poison."

The fact that experts have linked the symptoms of motion sickness and those of poisoning is hardly surprising to me. Motion sickness can cause such intense discomfort that many sufferers would rather face death than prolong the agony. And that's no way to spend a vacation.

So whether you're bobbing in the water, zigzagging on land or cruising at 33,000 feet, here are some ways to make your next journey less, well, unsettling.

By Sea

There is plenty of evidence that we can develop a tolerance to motion sickness. Ballerinas adapt to spinning, and acrobatic pilots get used to looping. "Deadliest Catch" crab boat captain Keith Colburn has practically cured himself of symptoms by spending decades in some of the roughest waters on the planet.

"I can't remember the last time I threw up," said Colburn, who leads his crew through the Bering Sea, where swells can reach 15 to 20 feet for a month at a time and 30 to 40 feet in a storm. "My body's just used to being on the ocean. I'm one of the lucky ones."

Colburn said he first suffered from seasickness as an 18-year-old sailing off the coast of California, and it lasted for five days. When he began fishing off Alaska, he battled symptoms like everyone else.

"You start to feel a little wrong, then pretty soon you realize you're feeling nauseous," Colburn said. "Before you know it, your forehead starts to perspire uncontrollably, then your mouth waters uncontrollably, and then you have to find somewhere safe to let a big mess go, because there's no stopping what's going to happen next."

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