Health & Fitness

Why people experience motion-linked sickness

motion sickness
A child vomits in car due to motion sickness. PHOTO | SHUTTERSTOCK 

Qn: “What causes some passengers to vomit in moving planes or cars? I don’t understand this”.

You might as well have asked why drunk people fall! To begin to answer your question, you must begin by understanding how a person keeps his balance. Have you ever wondered why you can keep your balance without falling down the moment you stand up? The answer is simple.

Deep in the ear, there is an organ made up like a series of small tubes, which enables you to maintain normal balance. You remain upright because the messages that go to your brain from this organ match what the brain is “being told” by the eyes as well as all the other signals coming from other organs including the skin. The muscles are then given instructions by the brain on how to behave, to ensure a balance is maintained.

During motion, as in an aircraft or a car, some people experience motion sickness because the messages going to the brain are in some way distorted and this leads to nausea and in some cases vomiting. It is the same mechanism of action that leads to sickness. Happily, for all, in most cases, the motion sickness goes away with time. There are also some very effective treatments for motion sickness.

To put it bluntly, the reason for vomiting in the car or aeroplane is to be found in your inner ear.


Your question now leads us to another discussion on the challenges associated with travel or motion.

A few years ago, we were asked to see a professor who had what on the surface seemed like a small problem.

He had won an award and was required to travel overseas to receive it.

The professor had at first given excuses as to why he could not travel.

First, he said it was too much work. Then he said he could not travel without his wife and later confessed that he had a phobia for flying.

The thought of being in the air “without anything supporting the plane” was the biggest nightmare for him. He stated that he was afraid that the aeroplane would somehow “fall from the sky”.

He also feared that the enclosed space in the plane was too small for so many people and if he runs short of oxygen, he would not be able to “dash outside” for some fresh air.

This was a well-educated man who was well travelled in the region. He had not flown in a plane before and all his travel in East Africa was either by car or by bus.

When told he must fly, he told the story of President Jomo Kenyatta who is said to have had a similar fear for flying.

He explained that if a president could rule a country without frequent flying, then he as a mere professor could lead a life without flying. This was a poor explanation.

Many hours were spent by well-meaning but ignorant friends (and doctors) trying to show him facts and figures about the safety of travel by air.

They told him that it was more dangerous to travel to Mombasa by night bus than to fly. All the facts fell on fearful deaf ears and he would not budge.

When we saw him, we made a diagnosis of aviophobia. Put simply, the man had a phobia for air travel.

A detailed history led us to the origins of his fear of flying. When he was a child, a light aircraft had crashed into a maize field near his school. All his life he had suppressed the memory of the incident, and in particular the memory of the damaged plane.

His was a fear emanating from an event in his childhood. In his case, there was a clear link to childhood experience and a fear of flying.

Sadly, not all people with problems of travel have such simple explanations.

A programme of treatment was put in place.

First, it was about him coming to terms with the memory. The next stage was a gradual exposure to travel by air.

At first just imagining being at an airport, later being near an aircraft and later being inside a plane.

In due time, he was moved from mental images to real airports and planes.

This gradual process of desensitisation went on for three months. He eventually was able to fly, at first experiencing some motion sickness. This was sorted out with some medication. Now he is all over the world.