dark mode light mode Search
Search
Plane spiralling in the air.

We are not completely certain what causes plane sickness, also called motion sickness, but there is a strong theory that experts agree can best explain these symptoms. It occurs when there is a mismatch between the perception of your eyes, your vestibular perception and your proprioception. [1]

All three should agree on where your head is moving. If you are moving in one direction and one or more of these three systems perceive you are moving in another direction, motion sickness can occur.

Plane Sickness is different from Airplane Ear. If you would like to know more about Airplane Ear, you can read about it on Airplane Ear and Barotrauma.

What is the Difference Between Plane Sickness and Motion Sickness?

Motion sickness is feeling sick, dizzy and/or nauseous as a result of your body getting mixed signals as to where it is going. The most common symptoms are stomach awareness, nausea and vomiting. Some people will also feel vertigo, which means they feel the room is spinning.

Plane sickness is when you get motion sickness on a plane. It is the same thing, except it is the layman’s term for motion sickness during flight. Your doctor will usually refer to this condition as motion sickness or travel sickness. If you are looking for literature regarding this condition, you will more likely find content if you search for motion sickness instead of plane sickness.

For the purpose of this article we will use the terms interchangeably.

Which organs are involved in Plane Sickness?

Eyes

They see where you are going. If your are moving forward, your retina will send the message to your brain that your are moving in a forward direction. When you walk forward your eyes perceive the familiar movement of objects getting larger as you get closer, and other objects moving out of your field of view as you walk past them.

If you were to look into a screen while playing a game, a flight simulator or watching a film scene shot from within a vehicle or plane, your eyes will perceive there is movement in a certain direction, even if the movement isn’t real. Even if the rest of your body is sat in an armchair, your eyes perceive there is movement.

Vestibular System

This system is located in your inner ear and specifically sends messages to your brain about which direction your head is moving. If you close your eyes and tilt your head in any direction you will feel the direction in which you head has tilted.

This is helpful when you pull a shirt over your head, or need to find a light switch in the dark. You have an idea of where your head is, and where it is going even though you cannot see anything.

Proprioception

This is how the body senses movement through [1] the muscles and joints, and sends these messages to the brain for it to interpret where your limbs are. If you were to wave your arms above and around yourself, while you keep your head still and your eyes closed, you will perceive your arms are raised or extended forward. You will appreciate if you are walking or in the sitting position.

This is helpful when reaching out to something when you are not looking. Or when you are walking and look the other direction. You will perceive your limbs are moving, walking forward, even though your head and your eyes may have rotated to lookout for something else.

Motion sickness occurs if there is a mismatch between your eyes, the vestibular system and proprioception.

What Causes Plane Sickness?

Plane sickness creeps up on you when you least expect it. It’s triggered by the motion you perceive while on a plane. The plane itself moves in all directions, it vibrates [2]and shifts in each direction with little to no warning. You can also get a similar sensation when you are looking into a fixed screen or monitor and it appears to be moving. This can also occur to people that fly remotely piloted aircraft, such as drone pilots or anyone using a VR headset.[3, 4]

The mismatch – in what your senses perceive – can occur when you are staring out the side window. You can only see a small part of the horizon from the side of the aircraft. [5]

You’re also unaware of which direction the aircraft is going to move next.

This can be baffling for your brain to process. And this is where motion sickness can begin to occur.

In this case the aircraft is moving forward, your body feels it’s moving forward, but your eyes can see things at a sideways angle.

Turbulence can also make things worse. It’s a violent and unsteady movement caused by the air the plane is flying through. It jolts you up down, sideways, or all three. These swift changes can trigger a feeling of sickness if they are too quick for you to process.

Take offs and landings are moments when the plane accelerates and brakes abruptly. Your body will feel pressed against the seat on take off, the runway and buildings on the side of the airport will tilt as the horizon does too.

The forward movement of the aircraft is perceived by your muscles and joints, your proprioceptors are telling your brain you are moving forward. Your head and your eyes will be perceiving another perspective of the takeoff. When these aren’t processed correctly you may begin to feel sick.

There are many instances during flight when this may occur and it may be worse depending on which part of the aircraft you are sitting in.

Conclusion

Motion sickness is causes by a mismatch between your eyes, your inner ear [vestibular system] and signals coming from the muscles and joints of your body [proprioception]. When one or more of these are sending the wrong signals to your brain, you will get a feeling of sickness.

Photo by Richard R. Schünemann on Unsplash


References

  1. Zhang LL, Wang JQ, Qi RR, Pan LL, Li M, Cai YL. Motion Sickness: Current Knowledge and Recent Advance. CNS Neurosci Ther. 2016 Jan;22(1):15-24. doi: 10.1111/cns.12468. Epub 2015 Oct 9. PMID: 26452639; PMCID: PMC6492910.
  2. Turner M, Griffin MJ, Holland I. Airsickness and aircraft motion during short-haul flights. Aviat Space Environ Med. 2000 Dec;71(12):1181-9. PMID: 11439716.
  3. Regan EC, Price KR. The frequency of occurrence and severity of side-effects of immersion virtual reality. Aviat Space Environ Med. 1994;65:527–530.
  4. Gahlinger PM. Motion sickness. How to help your patients avoid travel travail. Postgrad Med. 1999 Oct 1;106(4):177-84. doi: 10.3810/pgm.1999.10.1.719. PMID: 10533517.
  5. Takov V, Tadi P. Motion Sickness. [Updated 2022 Nov 4]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2023 Jan-.