The Immobile Interpreter

Not sure if travelling a lot is a pain in the ass when you’re suffering from motion sickness or if motion sickness is a pain in the ass for someone who has to travel a lot, to make a living.

Either way, it took me a fairly long time to figure out that I am not actually deranged, I am one of 30% of the population of the planet that suffers from motion sickness. And, for a nerd like me, knowing the science behind stuff does make such annoyances less of a bitch. Growing up, I couldn’t go anywhere without being sick and throwing up. First 100 yards in a car and I would puke my guts out. I would get sick on amusement park rides, swings, trips to the seaside and short rides to the market. Of course lack of proper roads (bendy and bumpy), smoking drivers, fumes, 30-year-old cars, closed windows (cos the draft is the biggest danger to human health, according to Romanians), buses crammed full of schoolchildren didn’t help either. Also, back then, in elementary school, I didn’t know enough to tell the unsympathetic adults around me that motion sickness is a common condition for anyone with a fully functioning vestibular nervous system. And that children between the ages of four and twelve are particularly prone to it.

What is it exactly? Well, it’s that unpleasant sensation of nausea and dizziness you experience when you’re in a moving vehicle. It’s also called travel sickness, sea sickness or car sickness, but these names don’t really capture it completely. That’s because, for one thing, motion sickness can be brought about not only by travelling in cars, boats, submarines, airplanes or trains, but also, as I mentioned above, by riding a carousel, for instance, or even a swing at a playground. For the next, sometimes motion does not have to occur for the sickness to set in. I’ll explain.

Contrary to what people used to tell me when I was a kid and contrary to popular belief, motion sickness is not just your imagination at work and it doesn’t start anywhere in your digestive system. All of the symptoms (general feeling of unwellness, headaches, nausea, hyperventilation, excessive sweating, weakness, dizziness, pallor or redness in the face, vomiting) are results of what happens in your inner ear (so it is all kinda in your head, if you think about it).

Inside your inner ear, there is a series of semi-circular canals (the labyrinth) filled with fluid. Now, when your head is moved, the labyrinth tells your brain how far, how fast and in which direction your head is moving. This information is passed on to the brain via the vestibular nerve. If your brain knows the position of your head, it can work out the position of the rest of your body. However, your brain also has to rely on other sensory information it gets from your muscles, joints and eyes in order to pinpoint the position of your body at all times.

So this is when it’s presumed that motion sickness sets in, when there is conflicting sensory input. This, for example, is how you can get sick if you’re in a stationary train and you’re looking out the window to the train moving on the line next to yours. Or if you’re in the passenger seat of a car that’s being driven on a winding road while you’re reading a book or looking at a map. In this latter case, your inner ear is telling your brain, through the vestibular nerve, that your body is on the move, but according to your eyes which are focusing on a stationary object, your body is still. This conflicting sensory information gets passed on to the part of your brain called the area postrema which is responsible for vomiting. If someone with motion sickness doesn’t stop moving, they will start to throw up. Frequent vomiting can eventually lead to dehydration, exhaustion and dangerously low blood pressure.

Not to be taken lightly!

I have never counted the places that I have blessed with my sick throughout the years, but they make quite an interesting collection: from the lovely Western Carpathians in Romania, to the dry plains of the South, to the Budapest Airport (remember?) and even as far as Miami. The last event occurred somewhere above Luxemburg during the worst turbulence I have ever encountered (I hate Bombardiers, by the way!). I have even been known to ask drivers to pull overĀ  while on mission with EU delegations.

There are all sorts of tips and tricks on how not to get sick and believe me, I have tried everything! The best I can do now is offer advice on how not to get too sick or not sick enough to puke your guts out for the passengers of an entire friggin’ Airbus to see. It is worth mentioning that I never get sick on trains and boats…

Watching the scenery works, so don’t fix your gaze on individual moving objects, just scan the scenery in general. This way, your eyes will confirm the sensation of motion perceived by your inner ear. This only works for me if I’m in a car though and only as long as I don’t move my head as well. That makes me a pretty useless copilot, cause sometimes the driver needs an extra pair of eyes, but, since I have to be completely stiff and sometimes even keep my eyes closed if things get serious, I’m no help. When on a plane, during takeoff, turbulence and landing, I have to stay completely still and close my eyes; otherwise, there’s trouble.

Plenty of air (difficult on a plane, with that recycled stuff that dries your throat), no alcohol and very little dry food before or during the trip. If you’re in the car with a driver who smokes, bad luck for you. In Romania it is, for some reason, considered rude to ask people not to give you cancer.

Pills don’t work, not for me anyway. I’ve tried everything on the market, but to no avail, and I hate taking meds anyway.

What you can also do is be nice and patient with people who may ask you to pull over because they are sick. Also keep your cars tidy and go easy on the air fresheners. And don’t drive like assholes. And quit smoking, it’s icky! And if you want moar science on this topic, check out this and this.