They say the Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away.
I was blessed with an appreciation for road racing and cars that corner and handle well. Unfortunately, I’m also very prone to motion sickness. That means I can’t race cars.
Back when I was riding around in the rear facing far back seat in the Buick station wagon belonging to my best friend Stevie Margolin’s mom, this affliction was called “car sickness.” It was either in that Buick or on one of Detroit’s Bob-Lo boats that I recall first experiencing nausea when in motion.
Nausea and motion have a long association. The term nausea in fact comes to use from the ancient Greek word for boat. Up to 95 percent of the population experiences some form of motion sickness, with 5-15 percent being extremely sensitive to it. Placebos, pharmaceuticals, over the counter medications, pressure bands, and even skin patches behind the ear have all been tried as treatments to varying degrees of success and side effects.
A new wearable medical device called the ReliefBand may make that motion induced nausea a thing of the past — and finally let me go racing.
Well, at least short races.
It’s not just an inconvenience. It affects my job as a car writer.
I’ve gotten [motion] sick for my readers at least three times that I can remember. Most recently was in January while driving a McLaren 675LT in the canyons of the Santa Monica Mountains. Last summer at a press event for the Detroit Grand Prix, I got a ride around the Belle Isle circuit in a Cadillac ATS-V driven by Johnny O’Connell, one of the Cadillac factory team drivers. I didn’t get as sick as I did in the McLaren, but then O’Connell only took me around one time. A second lap would have made the drive home uncomfortable. Once you get motion sickness, any kind of acceleration, straight line, lateral in corners, or deceleration from braking will aggravate it. You can even get motion sickness without actually moving as people can induce it while playing video games or sampling a virtual reality display.
When the Chevy Volt was first launched, TTAC’s managing editor at the time, Ed Niedermeyer, was in town for the Ride and Drive. Along with former TTAC contributor Michael Karesh and their GM chaperon, Ed picked me up at my place so I could hang out with them during dinner and karting at a local kart track. I foolishly let Ed and Mike talk me into “just taking a few laps.” As I came around the final hairpin turn for just the third time, I felt my stomach lurch so I dive bombed into the pits, scrambled to get my belts and helmet off, and dashed outside for some fresh air. The cold and rain provided some relief, but Karesh had to stop three times on the way home. Fortunately, I missed the kick panel on his Lexus.
Even veteran race car drivers, airplane pilots and boaters can experience motion sickness when they’re riding shotgun. I’m not the only automotive writer to admit getting motion sickness.
The exact cause of motion sickness is not known. A study of the neural circuits involved in nausea says, “The emetic reflex is arguably the most complicated autonomic reflex involving the precise temporal co-ordination of multiple physiological systems including gastrointestinal, cardiovascular and respiratory.” Emesis is the scientific way of saying puking.
For a long time, conventional thought regarding motion sickness blamed the brain being supplied with conflicting information. Near field vision of the interior of the car, plane or boat says that you’re not moving. Far field vision and your inner ear says that you are moving. The problem with that theory is nobody can explain exactly what data is causing the conflict. The University of Minnesota’s Thomas Stoffregen says that makes it a non-falsifiable theory and thus not really a scientific explanation.
Dr. Stoffregen’s field of study is kinesiology, the study of the body’s motion, and his studies tell him that the problem doesn’t originate in the inner ear. but rather in the body’s system for maintaining posture. There is something called proprioception. It’s how you know your arm is extended. In addition to the nerves that trigger muscles, there are nerves that carry back information on a muscle’s state to the brain. Stoffregen says that humans get nauseated (grammar note: nauseous is an adjective) because they have not yet learned how to maintain a stable posture in the new environment.
Robert Kennedy, a psych professor at the University of Central Florida puts it this way.
“Most theories say when you get motion sick, you lose your equilibrium. Stoffregen says because you lose your equilibrium, you get motion sick.”
That would explain why passengers are more susceptible to motion sickness than drivers. The driver knows which way he is going to go and can anticipate the changes with his posture. It also explains how, for some people, the symptoms can be reduced with exposure to the motion that is causing them nausea.
People naturally wobble, it’s called “postural sway.” Stoffregen has found that people with a greater range of motion in their natural sway are more likely to get motion sickness. Dr. Stoffregen believes that until the body learns how to react to the high G forces, its posture-maintenance system can’t deal with the new environment. Some people adapt more quickly than others. In the case of video games and VR, the body may be trying to react to G forces that aren’t really there.
I’m a skeptic of alternative medicine, but it’s been shown in replicated studies that acupuncture at what is known at the P6 point, where the median nerve passes through the wrist, can alleviate nausea. Transcutaneous electrical stimulation of the median nerve has been shown to have similar effects. That shouldn’t be surprising. The study cited above says, “The involvement and critical importance of vagal neurocircuitry in the generation of nausea and vomiting has been well defined across several species including humans.” It’s the output side of the vagal system that triggers vomiting. Since the vagal system gets inputs from a variety of hindbrain, midbrain and forebrain structures, it’s possible that stimulating the median nerve may be offsetting or balancing the signals being sent to your stomach telling it to hurl.
That’s what ReliefBand Technologies claims. They’re a Chicago-area company that makes medical wearable devices for the relief of the symptoms of motion sickness as well as pregnancy-related morning sickness. It’s supposed to be good for relief of general nausea, but if you’re regularly experiencing nausea that’s not related to motion or pregnancy, you should probably see a doctor.
After reading a review of the product, figuring that I’m a worst case scenario. I contacted ReliefBand and they sent me a review sample. About the size of a fashionably large wrist watch, the ReliefBand is strapped tightly to the underside of your wrist after first applying a film of conductive gel (they sell their own gel, but I’m pretty sure anything that works with an EKG or heart rate monitor should work just as well). You position it over the median nerve and choose whatever of the five settings that delivers pulsed electricity at a level that will reliably stimulate the median nerve, which you can tell by tingling in your palm and middle finger.
I tested the ReliefBand at two different go kart tracks. As mentioned above, two or three laps in a pro style kart is all it normally takes to make me nauseated enough to vomit. The instructions for the ReliefBand say that if you’re using it prophylactically, to prevent anticipated motion sickness, you should activate it about 30 minutes prior to the nausea inducing activity. I turned it on, set it to the #3 position, and drove to a kart track.
The facility had electric karts. I think that gasoline powered karts would have been a more rigorous test because exhaust fumes alone can cause nausea, but I had to run an errand on that side of town. It was mid-afternoon, so I had the track to myself, which was probably good for the testing. While telling the track manager what I was trying to do, essentially try to make myself sick, he said that he sometimes experiences motion sickness when running alone. Perhaps conscious competition with others overrides autonomic nervous system events.
In any case, I was definitely trying to induce motion sickness, braking hard enough to start slides, cornering at the most severe angles I could manage while still keeping the car on the track, and in general just tossing the kart around. The fact that the kart was electric may have resulted in higher G forces in acceleration than with a gasoline kart.
To be honest, I was surprised that I really didn’t feel any symptoms after three or four hard laps, so I pushed a little harder, now concentrating on my lines, trying to get better speed. After 10 laps, I started to feel some symptoms: a little bit of nausea, and I started to sweat — not quite profusely, but more than the temperature and conditions warranted. The symptoms subsided a little and, after slowing down for one lap, I was able to complete the rest of the 14 lap session. I wouldn’t say I was woozy when I pulled into the pits, but I did take a moment to relax and clear my head.
While getting my timesheet from the manager, he did say that I looked a little pale. I didn’t feel that terrible, but I did sit in my car with the A/C blowing cold air on my face for a few minutes before I pulled out of the lot. I wasn’t 100 percent, but the drive home didn’t aggravate things as it would have had I gotten more seriously ill. When I got home, I rested for about 20 minutes with the ReliefBand still active, and then I felt fine. Compared to how I would have normally felt after even a fraction of those laps, it was a dramatic improvement.
Still, one problem with the ReliefBand is that getting it located right over the median nerve takes some adjustment and also movements of the hand and wrist affect the conductivity so sometimes the stimulation is more intense than other times. It’s never painful, but it is noticeable and I’m not entirely sure it wouldn’t be distracting in a real race. In normal driving, it isn’t a problem.
Thinking I might not have had it turned up high enough the first time, I went to another indoor karting facility, this one with gasoline-powered pro style karts. I put the strap on a bit tighter this time and set the ReliefBand to its highest setting before running an errand that took me close to the track.
The speeds and braking and cornering forces with this kart were a bit higher than with the previous test but I still felt fine for the first nine laps. Lap ten brought some nausea but then it was almost as if I could feel the ReliefBand working as the symptoms would ebb and flow. After 14 laps in the gas kart, I actually felt better than I had after the first test, so I probably do need the higher setting. I left the ReliefBand activated until I got home about 30 minutes later. I felt fine so I took it off. I experienced no symptoms for the rest of the day.
Your mileage may vary, but the ReliefBand certainly does seem to work with my nervous system. I’m not sure it would work in a car race where the speeds and G forces can be higher than with karts, but it will definitely let me go karting with friends. To see how it works on a full sized car racing course, I’ve arranged to get a ride with Jack Baruth the next time he’s at a track within driving distance of my place. I’ll also get his opinion on whether the electrical shock would be distracting in a race.
You can buy the ReliefBand for $89.99 directly from the company. It comes ready to use, with batteries good for 150 hours of use. The current version is a little bit clunky, and the company says that the next iteration has already been designed to be sleeker. As is, I’m pretty sure it will still fit under racing gloves.
Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can get a parallax view at Cars In Depth. Thanks for reading – RJS