Michael Huckabee is professor and director of the physician assistant program at UNMC. He's worked as a physician assistant for 30 years, primarily in rural Nebraska. He blogs every other week. Click here to read more from Michael Huckabee.
“Stop the ride! Stop the ride!”
That's what I screamed while strapped in a spinning carnival ride with my sister when I was about 11 years old. It was the twists, drops and other scares of provocative motion that made me nauseous. I felt sick the rest of the night. After that experience, I couldn't step near a cyclonic ride for years.
Most of us have a story of love or hate with carnival rides. Some love the sensation, while others like me, can't stand it.
There are two theories on why we get dizzy from carnival rides. One idea is the toxin detector (which sounds like a state fair spectacle itself). It suggests that our bodies have a natural defense system to eliminate poisons. If the brain senses something is out of alignment, the innate response is to eliminate a possibly ingested toxin. So when our balance center and vision are twisted up in knots, the mind believes we've swallowed a poison and triggers the nausea response. That leads to vomiting if we can't talk ourselves out of it.
The second theory has to do with signals that the balance center sends to the heart when we're turned upside down and flipped in circles. The balance center, called the vestibular system, sits deep inside each ear, closely tied to the brain. When we feel unusual motions, the brain goes on alert, telling the heart to pump faster and redirecting blood flow to vital organs. This system also tells the stomach to empty its contents so any effort of digestion won't distract from more important fight-or-flight responses.
Regardless of the theories, you can still enjoy a day at the fair.
-Rides that let you anticipate upcoming changes in direction help your brain register the effects, so roller-coasters are often better tolerated. Sitting a few seats from the front allows you to anticipate the motion without missing the exhilaration.
- Rides that have you focus on stationary objects are more confusing. Think of the “Tilt-a-Whirl,” where you focus on the center of the cart you're seated in, which doesn't move. The mind thinks it sees something motionless while the body experiences twists and turns. This sends mixed signals to the brain and is more likely to trigger motion sickness.
- Controlled regular breathing helps motion tolerance, and studies suggest it's at least half as effective as anti-motion medications while completely free of side effects.
- In a study of 61 volunteers, rides that only moved back and forth had half as much risk for motion sickness than those that added a second movement. A third movement only slightly increased the risk of motion sickness. So if you can handle two different motions, you likely can also handle the wildest rides.
-While some over-the-counter drugs can reduce motion sickness, their drowsy side effects typically interfere with enjoying a day at the carnival. The kitchen spice, ginger, is touted as an alternative remedy for motion sickness, but conflicting reports cannot confirm its effectiveness (and those on blood thinners or aspirin should avoid trying it).
-The best way to conquer motion sickness is to simply have frequent exposure to rides to desensitize the vestibular system, but this typically requires intensive training.
-Research offers an easier suggestion: a positive psychological attitude helps prevent motion sickness. Sitting down on a ride with a convincing attitude that you are going to enjoy it leads to a better experience than the self-fulfilling prophecy of getting on a ride that you believe is going to make you sick.