What Is Land Sickness—and Why Does it Happen?

The condition typically disappears after a few days on land, but there have been documented cases that lasted for months or even years.
Land Sickness can be just as unsettling as seasickness.
Land Sickness can be just as unsettling as seasickness. / mihailomilovanovic/E+/Getty Images (woman sitting on dock); Justin Dodd/Mental Floss (question mark)

Seasickness happens when a person’s body struggles to grow accustomed to a boat’s motion patterns, causing them to feel unsteady and often nauseated. But land sickness happens in reverse: A person’s body adapts to the motion of the waves, then struggles to return to homeostasis after reaching solid ground. Someone might sway or rock after leaving a boat; they may even begin to feel ill. 

What is land sickness?

One of the earliest known references to land sickness came from Erasmus Darwin in 1796, who wrote

Those, who have been upon the water in a boat or ship so long, that they have acquired the necessary habits of motion upon that unstable element, at their return on land frequently think in their reveries, or between sleeping and waking, that they observe the room, they sit in, or some of its furniture, to librate like the motion of the vessel. This I have experienced myself, and have been told, that after long voyages, it is some time before these ideas entirely vanish.” 

As Darwin’s description suggests, land sickness typically happens after someone has been out at sea for an extended trip, although the duration of their time on the water doesn’t necessarily correlate to the severity of their symptoms. Boats aren’t the only things to blame; airplanes and trains can also cause people to feel this sense of imbalance and unease. 

Some estimates suggest between 43 and 73 percent of people experience land sickness. The disorder can happen to anyone, but women from the age of 30 to 60 are more susceptible to it, as are those who experience migraines

What causes land sickness?

The exact cause of land sickness is still unknown. One of the leading theories is that consistent motion disrupts a person’s vestibular system. The vestibular system, which is located in the inner ear, is what helps people stay balanced and remain aware of their body’s position in space.

After prolonged exposure to a wave-like motion, a person’s body is typically able to adapt to the new environment. They’ll get used to the continual rocking movement. But once that motion stops, the person’s brain may continue reading the environment as if the waves are still rolling. This conflicting sensory information confuses the body and disrupts the vestibular system, making a person prone to feeling nauseated, unsteady, and generally unwell. 

Land sickness typically disappears after a person has spent a few days on land, but there have been documented cases of the condition lasting for months or even years.

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