IN THE BAD OLD DAYS, there was only Dramamine or, in a pinch, Scotch. One or the other —Scotch tried only once in desperation—got me through long hours on rocking boats, sort of. Because most motion-sickness remedies cause such drowsiness—you’re in a daze or asleep—or require staring at the horizon non-stop, any pleasure to be gained, along with pleasurable memories, are reduced so much you might as well have skipped the trip.
A more recent option, scopolamine patches, also risks drowsiness—and such dry mouth that people tear off the patches and then must wait hours for the effect to wear off. As for pleasant memories, scopolamine has the specific side effect of anterograde amnesia—blocking the first stage of memory coding, which disrupts the formation of short- term memories. Other side effects include dry, itchy eyes and disorientation; and, if taken for more than three days, withdrawal symptoms of nausea and vomiting.
Better relief came for me at a corporate dinner held on a boat tied up at a dock. A fellow guest suggested using the thumb of one hand to press a point near the wrist bone of the other hand and hold it there, creating a sort of acupressure or maybe just a distraction. The nausea abated to the point where I might have sampled the food, except that both hands were occupied. (The Greek word for seasickness, nausia, is derived from naus, meaning ship.)
The best solution for me is the “relief band,” which operates on a similar principle. Borrowed first from a friend, the battery-operated device looks like a wristwatch. It vibrates gently against the inside of the wrist—with five levels of intensity that can be increased as needed—creating what’s called electrical acustimulation. Most bands come with a gel that improves contact and increases the sensation.
Ecstatic at my success, I forked over what seemed like a hefty amount (at Sharper Image, about $90 at the time, now $119.99) for my own band. With that band, I managed to enjoy, first a bumpy car ride in the morning—when motion sickness is usually worse—then a ferry boat ride in rough seas, and I felt ready for anything.
Less expensive bands, from around $5 to around $20, come in sets of two for wearing on both wrists and provide static pressure without vibrations. While these can work well, some people need to ramp up the intensity with extra help from the thumbs.
Motion sickness, also called kinetosis and travel sickness, occurs in susceptible people when motion is felt but not seen, as in a ship without windows or if you’re not paying attention to your surroundings—for example, because you’re reading or chatting, both ill-advised for those at risk. The same result comes from motion that is seen but not felt, as with jerky film images from a handheld camera or with video games.
The one-third of the population considered “highly susceptible” includes those who get migraines, those taking medications—some antibiotics and antidepressants along with OTC drugs like ibuprofen and naproxen—children ages 2-12, and women, especially when menstruating or on hormone therapy. Susceptibility can increase with age.
The symptoms of motion sickness occur when sensory information received by the eyes doesn’t match that received by the vestibular system, based in the inner ear —which interprets balance and spatial orientation in order to coordinate movement with balance. Symptoms include nausea, headaches, cold sweats, irritability and dizziness as well as the same fatigue that comes with many remedies.
The oldest and most common explanation for motion sickness is the body defending itself against poisoning. With a sensory information mismatch, the brain’s interpretation is that the individual must be hallucinating, which is caused by poison, including food poisoning. In response, the brain signals the stomach to rid the body of poison by vomiting, or emesis.
The movement of such messages within the brain is facilitated by the neurotransmitter acetylcholine. Both classes of medication that can counter symptoms of motion sickness—antihistamines (Dramamine) and scopolamine—are thought to interfere with acetylcholine receptors to interrupt the poisoning message.
Neuromodulation—from relief bands, both vibrating and non-vibrating—is believed to interrupt signaling later in the process, from the brain to the gastric system by way of the vagal nerve. The brain senses a problem but is blocked from communicating with the stomach, which in turn prevents nausea and vomiting. The makers of the vibrating relief bands credit an algorithm that triggers electric pulses to come frequently enough to block nausea but not so frequently that the nerve stops responding.
Among other remedies, chewing anything, especially gum, works via a similar mechanism of interrupting signals that result in vomiting. For many, ginger works by relaxing specific stomach muscles. Closing the eyes can resolve the “input conflict” but risks leading to sleep. And then there’s cannabis, which can help with all kinds of nausea, along with its added pleasures—though for some, marijuana causes the drowsiness they are trying to avoid.
In clinical studies on relief bands, however, no changes in “symptoms and gastric myoelectric activity” were observed—leading to a more psychogenic or psychosomatic explanation, such as one’s attention directed to the bands’ uncomfortable, even annoying, vibrations —or to pressure from the non-mechanized model—distracts the brain sufficiently to interfere with or replace neural messages that concern poisoning. While the bands’ effect could thus be described as a placebo—so could the action of remedies like ginger and cannabis.
Just working on this post, I began to feel queasy almost immediately, as my apparently overly suggestible brain experienced motion merely from thinking about it—until I donned my relief band set at its car/boat intensity of 3 to 4.
True relief of motion sickness makes way for better experiences and increased mindfulness, for the ability to say truthfully: “It’s not the destination but the journey that matters.”
Note: Battery-powered bands from other companies, like Reliefband, start at $89.99.)
Armed with her relief band, Mary Carpenter is ready for rough seas.
Read more of her posts here.