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Why Do You Feel Like You’re on a Boat or Rocking When You’re Still?

Posted on October 31, 2022
Medically reviewed by
Evelyn O. Berman, M.D.
Article written by
Sarah Winfrey

When you’re living with multiple sclerosis (MS), it can help to know that others are dealing with the same symptoms. Several MyMSTeam members have reported feeling as if they are on a boat. As one member put it, “I sometimes feel like I’m rocking or in a boat when I’m sitting or lying perfectly still … does anyone else have that problem?”

If you experience this sensation, read on to discover what you need to know about how it relates to MS. Knowing these facts can help you keep your quality of life, overall sense of wellness, and mental health high.

What Causes That Rocking Boat’ Feeling?

The rocking boat feeling is most likely caused by dizziness or vertigo. About one-third of people diagnosed with MS will experience dizziness at some point. However, there is a difference between standard dizziness and actual vertigo. Dizziness usually refers to a feeling of lightheadedness. Vertigo describes feeling like the area around you is moving when it actually is not. You can still feel vertigo with your eyes closed and feel as if you’re moving, while you are in a resting position.

What Else Does Vertigo or Dizziness Cause?

People who live with MS can experience dizziness and vertigo in many ways. Therefore, you don’t have to feel like you’re on a rocking boat to list this among your symptoms.

Some people experience dizziness infrequently. Others have it for longer periods of time and find it relatively debilitating. As one member put it, “Today, I couldn’t get out of bed. The room was spinning, and the feeling of nausea was huge. I had to call in sick.”

Fortunately, many people living with MS tend to find that their dizziness and vertigo occur irregularly and that it’s temporary.

What Causes Dizziness in MS?

There are many reasons why you might feel dizzy and experience vertigo when you’re living with MS.

Flares

When your MS flares, relapses, or gets worse, you may be more likely to feel dizzy. Symptoms connected to a flare will usually go away, or at least subside significantly, after a while.

Medications for MS and Other Conditions

A few medications often prescribed for MS can cause vertigo and dizziness. If you are on medications for another condition, those may be causing or contributing to your dizziness, too. In fact, any medication that has dizziness or vertigo listed as a possible side effect, even if the chances are very low, should be considered a possible cause. You can also look at possible medication interactions. If you have questions about the drugs you’re taking for MS or other conditions, ask your pharmacist or doctor for help. You should not stop taking medications prescribed by your doctor without consulting them first about possible side effects.

MS Lesions

MS is an autoimmune condition in which your body attacks itself, causing damage to the myelin coating on the nerves and results in lesions. Some people get MS lesions on their brainstem. If these occur near where the inner ear connects to the stem, the lesions may interfere with balance, as the inner ear is part of your balancing system. Lesions may also develop on or near the cerebellum, the part of the brain that helps keep you balanced.

In general, if you have MS lesions in any parts of the brain that help you process visual information, locate yourself in space, or otherwise navigate your surroundings, those lesions could lead to vertigo and dizziness. This particular pathway in your brain is called your vestibular pathway or vestibular system. It helps you stay upright and know where you are in relation to objects around you, which is why lesions in or around this area may lead to feelings of physical instability.

Other Possible Causes

Although MS can be related to vertigo and dizziness, it doesn’t mean yours is caused by the condition. That’s why you should always talk to your neurologist when you experience new symptoms, like feeling as if you’re rocking on a boat. Your neurologist can help determine the cause of your symptoms by testing you for:

  • Cardiac arrhythmia
  • Migraine
  • Stroke
  • High blood pressure
  • Inner ear issues

Vertigo and dizziness can be symptoms of these conditions as well, which is why it’s imperative to consult your doctor before attempting to treat the condition yourself. Your doctor will be able to help determine the root cause of your symptoms and can provide a comprehensive treatment plan, whether the sensations stem from MS, medications, related conditions, or other causes.

How To Feel Better if You Feel Like You’re Rocking

If you experience vertigo and/or dizziness regularly, talk to your health care team to get medical advice about finding a solution.

Look Into Medications and Medication Changes

If you believe your MS medication may be causing dizziness, consider switching to a different one. Make sure to weigh the pros and cons of this with your neurology team to decide what is best for you.

On the other hand, you may be able to take medications to help make the dizziness and vertigo less severe. Some people find that over-the-counter anti-nausea or motion sickness medications help them feel better. You can keep these on hand if you experience occasional vertigo and dizziness.

If you get dizzy or experience a rocking-boat or other vertigo sensation regularly, your neurology specialist may be able to give you something stronger to help. Medications like benzodiazepines, corticosteroids, and antihistamines can help lessen these sensations, although it may take some trial and error to find out what is right for you.

Try Physical Therapy

Many types of physical therapy are designed to help people who feel dizzy or have frequent vertigo episodes. Vestibular rehabilitation can help you work on your balance problems so you aren’t off-balance as often. These therapists can also help steady your vision stability to reduce these sensations. If you only experience symptoms when you’re in certain positions, a physical therapist can help you build up a tolerance to those positions so you can tolerate them better without feeling debilitated.

Be Prepared When Symptoms Strike

If you know what to do when that rocking boat sensation arrives, you may be able to reduce its effects so you don’t fall or get injured. As soon as you start to feel like you’re rocking or have other signs of dizziness, you should:

  • Sit down — Even if you have to sit on the floor, it’s safer than standing when you don’t feel well.
  • Stay still — Don’t move your body or your head. Or you can limit movements as much as possible until the sensation passes.
  • Keep support nearby — Whether this means getting help from another person or a support device, make sure there’s always a way for you to move around safely even when you feel like you’re rocking.
  • Turn down the lights — Keeping the lights dim and turning off televisions and other screens may help you recover faster.
  • Give yourself time — Don’t try to move until you are feeling better. When you do move, go slowly until you know how your body is going to respond.

Find Your MS Team

MyMSTeam is the social network for people with multiple sclerosis and their loved ones. Here, more than 193,000 members come together to ask questions, give advice, and share their stories with others who understand life with MS.

Have you ever felt like you’re on a rocking boat or experiencing symptoms of dizziness and vertigo? Do you have other symptoms and wonder if they are connected to MS? Ask about all of your symptoms and more at MyMSTeam today.

    All updates must be accompanied by text or a picture.
    Evelyn O. Berman, M.D. is a neurology and pediatric specialist and treats disorders of the brain in children. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Learn more about her here.
    Sarah Winfrey is a writer at MyHealthTeam. Learn more about her here.

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