Overview of Motion Sickness

Motion sickness is relatively common in children and adults. The condition often occurs as a result of motion or movement during travel. Some children experience motion sickness while riding on playground equipment (e.g., swing, merry-go-round), on amusement park rides, or on a school bus.

Motion sickness causes stomach upset, nausea, vomiting, dizziness (vertigo), and other symptoms, which are temporary and resolve after motion stops. When the condition occurs in an automobile, it sometimes is called car sickness. When motion sickness occurs on a boat or ship, it can be called sea sickness, and when it occurs in an airplane, it can be called air sickness.

During movement, the central nervous system (CNS; i.e., brain and spinal cord) uses information from nerve cells (called neurons) to help maintain balance (also called equilibrium). Nerve cells throughout the body send signals to the brain through the spinal cord. The brain receives and processes these signals to determine the position and orientation of the body—the direction the body is facing, whether the entire body or parts of the body are moving or still, and in which direction and at what speed the body is moving or turning. Motion sickness occurs as a result of conflicting signals within the nervous system—between nerve cells that detect movement or motion and the brain.

Nerves that sense movement are located throughout the body, including the following:

  • Inner ears (called the labyrinths; help monitor direction of movement, such as turning, side to side, forward and backward, up and down)
  • Eyes (help determine the direction and speed of movement and the orientation of the body in relationship to surrounding objects—upside down, rightside up)
  • Skin (e.g., of the hands, feet, back; help detect pressure and determine which parts of the body are in contact with surrounding objects, such as the ground or a chair)
  • Muscles and joints (e.g., in the arms, legs, neck, back; help detect which parts of the body are moving)

Publication Review By: Stanley J. Swierzewski, III, M.D.

Published: 27 Aug 2008

Last Modified: 25 Sep 2015