The travel illness that never goes away

It’s called Mal de Debarquement Syndrome (MDDS) and is a disorder of perceived movement that develops following plane flights, an ocean cruise, or train travel. It can persist for months or years. Despite references to MDDS that date back as far as 1796, little is known about the rare and annoying though non-life-threatening condition.

Common symptoms of the odd disorder include a persistent sensation of motion such as rocking, swaying, tumbling, and/or bobbing. This sensation of motion is often associated with anxiety, fatigue, difficulty maintaining balance, unsteadiness, and difficulty concentrating (impaired cognitive function). Often, the motion sensation seems to disappear when riding in the car or participating in other motion experiences.

Basically, it’s like the feeling one might get when they first get off a cruise ship or long flight as they adjust to not living on something that is moving.
Patty Boyd of Spokane, Washington was a U.S. Air Force medic, so her diagnosis of mal de debarquement seemed especially strange after cruise vacations in 2003 and 2005 left her rocking reports

“I did all kinds of traveling while I was in the Air Force, with no problems whatsoever,” Boyd says.

The rocking and bobbing lasted more than a year after the second cruise. Her third and current episode was triggered in spring 2010 by a flight to Hawaii.

In addition to motion, patients report episodes of feeling heavy heads, often described as “excess gravity”, and sensitivity to light and noise.

“It’s a difficult thing to diagnose. It’s rare, so it’s not the first thing you think of,” says neurologist Rodney Quinn, whose practice has less than half a dozen MDDS patients.

Normally diagnosed by excluding other illnesses, if you feel a constant rocking sensation which started immediately after a period of prolonged motion exposure and remains for days, yet everything else appears to be normal then it’s possible that you have MDDS.

There is no known cure for it. As a self-limiting illness, it eventually goes away on its own. Prevention is tough too. Valium and Ativan have been suggested as pre-trip medications to prevent recurrences of MDDS but then there’s the whole addiction thing to worry about.

Flickr photo by mio_pls

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