Tips & Techniques

Does Motion Sickness Mean I Have a Vestibular Disorder? What Can I Do About It?

Dana Tress 
June 1, 2024
Does Motion Sickness Mean I Have a Vestibular Disorder? What Can I Do About It?

Have you ever felt sick after riding in a car or being on a ride at an amusement park?  You might have become nauseous, had cold sweats, felt dizzy, or even thrown up.  If this has happened to you, you likely had an experience with motion sickness (or seasickness).  Does having motion sickness mean that you have a vestibular (inner ear) disorder?  Not always.  Read on to find out more!

Motion sickness happens when there is a conflict of information from your sensory systems that tell your brain about your position in space.  It is commonly experienced in children and adults.  Normally, your central nervous system (brain & spinal cord) balance input from your eyes (visual system), inner ear (vestibular system), and sensory receptors from your muscles and joints.  When all of these systems send the same information to the brain about how we are moving and positioned in space, we feel good.  Our brains like to have all of our systems telling it the same thing.  But, when the information from these systems does not match, we experience motion sickness.

We can unknowingly place ourselves in situations where we are more susceptible to dealing with motion sickness.  Imagine riding in a car, sitting in the back seat, and trying to look at your phone or read a book.  Your eyes are looking at a fixed object, so they are not perceiving the forward motion of the car.  Your vestibular system can sense the acceleration and deceleration of the car, as well as the vertical movement felt when you go over bumps in the road.  Your sensory system feels changes in pressure through the seat of the car as it speeds up, slows down, and changes direction.  In this scenario, the information from your eyes does not match the rest of the sensory input received by the brain.  This scenario can result in an experience of motion sickness that is not necessarily caused by any type of vestibular disorder.

To reduce your risk of motion sickness, try these tips:

  • Sit toward the front of a car, bus, train, etc.
  • Open windows and/or have air blowing on you
  • Look out at a fixed point on the horizon, not down toward your phone, book, etc.
  • Work on deep breathing techniques to calm any anxiety responses that could make you feel worse
  • If you are on a boat, sit toward the middle of the boat to reduce extra motion

Of course, situations that we are in are not the only things that can create feelings of motion sickness.  Having motion sickness as a child is often something we note in the history of individuals coming to us as adults with complaints of chronic vestibular problems such as Vestibular Migraine.  The link between motion sickness in children and the onset of chronic vestibular disorders is a subject that is being heavily researched right now. Current research suggests that motion sickness in childhood can help predict the likelihood of vestibular problems in adults.  In vestibular problems, the inner ear that senses gravitational forces on our bodies (rotating, forward/backward, up/down movement, etc) or the parts of the brain that interpret this information are not working properly.  In these cases, vestibular rehabilitation is often helpful to reduce dizziness symptoms, improve quality of life, and help people get back to doing their favorite activities.

Other times, we can develop (or are born with) problems with our eyes that cause a mismatch of information with what our vestibular system is telling our brain.  This too can result in feelings of motion sickness.  Having muscle weaknesses in the eye muscles, eye trauma, or even the development of glaucoma or cataracts can alter our vision.  This alteration in how we see might change the information being sent to the brain.  And again, when this information does not match what the vestibular system or sensory system is saying, we experience “dizziness” and all that can go along with it.

It is helpful to speak with your physician about any symptoms of motion sickness that you regularly experience.  An appointment with a vestibular trained physical therapist can also help you determine the source of your dizziness symptoms.  And as always, we are here to answer your questions!

Meet the Author
Dana Tress, PT, MS, CEAS, AIB-CON is a physical therapist specializing in the management of concussion, balance dysfunction, headaches and dizziness in Crystal Lake, Illinois at Smith Physical Therapy Balance + Concussion Center, an award winner in concierge physical therapy services for McHenry County and surrounding regions.
You were made to move!