March 28, 2019

Understanding Mal de Débarquement

All of us have probably experienced at least a slight amount of “land sickness” when returning to land after being in a rocking boat for a while. That is a very temporary, and usually less disturbing readjustment period. Our brain has to “un-sync” with the rhythmic rocking of the watercraft, and re-establishes the “default program mode” that our brain uses to process our usual, less dynamic, vestibular (balance) system inputs that we typically have on solid ground. With Mal de Débarquement Syndrome (MdDS), it is thought that mechanisms in the brain that have worked very faithfully for years, lose the ability to revert back to the “land program”.

MdDS is an acquired disorder affecting the vestibular system. In most cases it begins following an excursion on a boat or even an airplane that produced a rolling (side to side rocking) motion for a protracted period of time. A small percentage of sufferers experience the same symptoms for seemingly no known reason. The condition has baffled clinicians for centuries. It was first described in 1587 and labeled with the French term for, “sickness of disembarquement”. The hallmark of the condition is the persistent misperception of moving in a swaying or rocking motion when one is completely still. While it involves the vestibular system, it is not an issue with the vestibular sense organs in the inner ear. Rather it is understood to be a problem with processors in the brainstem and cerebellum that can in some individuals operate at such a fast and accurate level so that a person could walk on a “tightrope”. In MdDs these processors have been “reprogrammed” to constant movement, even when the motion of the airplane or boat has stopped.

MdDS is not a well-known condition. Diagnosis is often delayed and the condition is typically treated with medication.  Most continue to suffer symptoms caused by their “reprogrammed brains”, in spite of typical treatment options. If you are still searching for answers, it’s time to set up a complimentary consultation with one of our doctors to find out how the function of your brain may be a factor in your symptoms.


Saha KC, Fife TD. Mal de débarquement syndrome: Review and proposed diagnostic criteria. Neurol Clin Pract. 2015 Jun;5(3):209-215.

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