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Mal de Debarquement Syndrome

What is Mal de Debarquement syndrome?

This is a syndrome that appears related to motion sickness and is a very rare neurological syndrome. It is also a very poorly understood disorder. Another name for this syndrome is disembarkment syndrome. It can be traced back to the times of Darwin but it has only been recently that it has started to receive increased attention. Unfortunately, there has been very little scientific research done on this syndrome. The phrase mal de debarquement is French for disembarkation sickness. Most people


The characteristics of this syndrome are a persistent feeling of rocking, bobbing, or swaying after leaving something that has continual motion like an airplane flight. In addition, the person experiences extreme fatigue, difficulty in concentrating, and difficulty maintaining their balance. These symptoms will usually appear shortly after you debark or lands, from an airplane, cruise ship, etc. The symptoms are similar to what a person feels with motion sickness but last longer and there are no feelings of dull head pain or nausea present as with motion sickness.

Some other common symptoms can include:

  • The feeling as if the land is swaying backward, forward, or sideways as it might feel on a boat
  • Inability to walk a straight line
  • Needing to hold onto a stationary object to keep from losing their balance and falling
  • Dizziness
  • Visual disturbances such as inability to focus, seeing motion, etc
  • Migraine and/or headaches
  • Feeling of pressure in their brain
  • Anxiety
  • Confusion
  • Ear symptoms such as pain, decrease in hearing, a fullness in their ears, hearing of sound when no external sound is present or ringing (tinnitus), oversensitivity to certain volume and frequency ranges of sound (hyperacusis)
  • Difficulty concentration such as short term memory loss, inability to recall words, inability to multi-task, inability to use a computer for any length of time
  • Unable to watch television

The above symptoms will vary from person to person. There are some who experience these symptoms even when they are lying down or sitting still. These are debilitating symptoms and can vary on a daily basis, affecting social and daily activities. It appears as if the symptoms can increase from lack of sleep, flickering lights, sudden or fast movements, stress, crowds, busy patterns, and enclosed areas.


It is thought that is caused by a motion trigger such as being on an airplane, a cruise, or some other unstable, quickly moving transportation but it can happen spontaneously. Research has been done on this syndrome but they have not been able to tie this syndrome to any obvious problem in your brain or inner ear. There may be a chemical or physical deficiency in your brain or a genetic component but they are still researching these theories.


Mal de debarquement syndrome is normally diagnosed when someone reports a persistent feeling of rocking even if they are not doing anything to cause these feeling. There are not definitive tests to diagnosis mal de debarquement syndrome but they can run tests to rule out other medical conditions that can cause these same symptoms such as an audiogram to test for hearing loss, posturography to see if they have the ability to maintain their balance, neurological exam such as a CT or MRI scan. Your physician will also do a medical exam and take your medical history, especially to see if you have been on a cruise or airplane trip.


The symptoms/characteristics will often go away or lessen when they are in motion such as riding in a car. The treatment for mal de debarquement syndrome is palliative, which means helping to alleviate but not cure the symptoms. The medications that are used for motion sickness are ineffective in treating mal de debarquement syndrome.


Many people do feel unsteady for a few minutes but the symptoms of mal de debarquement syndrome can persist for more than thirty days and sometimes for years. If the symptoms have lasted longer than six months, there is less chance of remitting or going away. In some people the symptoms may diminish or disappear periodically only to reappear later after days, months, or even years. Sometimes the symptoms will come back after another cruise or airplane trip.

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