On travel sickness the much-loved advice doesn’t stand up. Here’s what works

News & Analysis

3rd June 2016

Summer is coming, time to pack your sunglasses, sun block and, for many people, travel sickness pills.

But what happens if you forget them? The world is full of well-meaning advice about treating motion sickness, from deep breaths to sitting on newspaper. Do we have scientific evidence that any of it works?

Pressure bands
These wrist bands are meant to reduce nausea by stimulating the P6 Nei guan acupuncture point, and have the added benefit of making you look like a 1980s Wimbledon champion.

Surprisingly, for such a popular option, there is limited published peer-reviewed evidence that these bands help prevent motion sickness.

One group of researchers, back in 2004, did enrol 77 brave people to compare a placebo against two different band makes.

One band applied pressure and the other electrically stimulated the acupuncture point, but they found that neither actually prevented motion sickness.

The head tilt
This may cause a few comments from your fellow passengers, but copying the driver and tilting your head against the centrifugal acceleration as you career around corners may make you feel better.

In a small Japanese study, a group of researchers used a racing track to test how many laps a passenger could manage before feeling sick. When the volunteers tilted their heads against the force they not only felt better, but could do more laps of the circuit before feeling sick and asking to stop.

Sitting on paper
How easy life would be if literally sitting on your filing made you feel better.

This widely loved piece of advice is often repeated but perhaps it comes as no surprise that there have been no large clinical trials to prove this theory either way.

If you must sit on paper, consider lying on it or just gazing at a fixed point on the horizon, as there is some credible evidence that either of these will make you feel better.

Ginger
Eating ginger is perhaps the easiest treatment of all and often cited as an excellent cure for nausea.

Don’t pad your suitcase with pickled ginger yet though, as a recent review of the literature concluded that many of the studies that looked at ginger and motion sickness were small and poorly designed, so there is still no conclusive evidence that this actually works.

Deep breaths and fresh air
It seems logical that getting away from a stuffy compartment, cabin or car is likely to lift your mood, but would your own bottle of fresh oxygen really help the nausea as the plane goes into its seventh landing approach?

A systematic review looking at studies testing the effect of giving people oxygen to help with motion sickness in ambulances would suggest oxygen may well help reduce motion sickness.

However, if you do not have an oxygen tank handy then there is good evidence that deep breathing also helps. Researchers found that if you train sufferers to breath slowly, at eight breaths per minute, they can successfully suppress the symptoms of motion sickness.

Practice
This may seem counterintuitive, but a little bit of travel sickness a day really does help when the pressure is on, say when you’re steering a space rocket.

Astronauts, fighter pilots and sailors have all been subjected to trials in rotating chairs that induce motion sickness; think of that James Bond scene in Moonraker.

NASA found that men who had been given a physiological training method called autogenic-feedback could spin faster and for longer periods in the chair than the men treated with drugs or placebo.

In a small study, a group of French researchers found that they could help seasick sailors using a series of visual exercises and sessions in a rotational chair. They improved the symptoms in 71 per cent of the people taking part but, before you rush out to buy your rotational chair, they found this method was not a complete cure.