For many travelers, cruising is the best way to explore our world. You’re on a lovely ship with loads of amenities and can head to multiple exciting ports of call during each sailing. And there’s an incredible extra bonus: You only have to unpack once!
But many avid cruisers have heard about a medical condition that can persist for days, or in rare cases, weeks after getting off the ship. We’re talking about that strange sensation called sea legs. For most, it’s a mild annoyance, but for a few unlucky travelers, it can be downright debilitating. Here’s everything you need to know about the condition called “sea legs” before your next voyage.
What Are Sea Legs?
Simply put, sea legs is the condition some travelers feel after getting off a boat after an extended period of time. You feel as if you’re still on the water, even though you’re back on terra firma. Patients might feel a slight sway as they walk, as if the ground is rolling underneath them. Others might have bouts of dizziness. Doctors say these symptoms likely come from the vestibular system, the mechanism in our inner ears that help control balance and equilibrium. If resetting that system takes a while post-cruise, you could end up with sea legs.
“Vestibular adaptation is the system that regulates balance adapted to the continuous wave motion which increased one’s stability when walking on board, but did not reset when disembarking,” explained Dr. Erik Ensrud, a neurologist at the University of Missouri.
Everyone’s vestibular adaptation kicks in or re-calibrates at different times. This explains why some people are just fine after a sailing, while others might feel a bit like Popeye for a few days.
Tips To Stop The Sway
While there are a few ways to keep that sway at bay, Dr. Ensrud shared a key concept.
“In general, larger boats and less rough seas are less likely to elicit this condition,” he told me. “Smaller range of motion on a larger boat would be expected to result in less vestibular adaptation. Likewise, rougher seas would cause greater continual change in motion, making the syndrome more likely to occur.”
Anecdotally, this checks out, at least with me. Years ago, I was on a lovely Mediterranean cruise that lasted nearly 2 weeks. While the ship had stabilizers, the sea was definitely rough at times. While it wasn’t enough to make me seasick while onboard, it took me several days to regain my land legs and feel normal again. Whereas on river cruises and even aboard a private yacht on the Dalmatian coast, I’ve been just fine. The smaller the swells, the easier it was for my brain and body to readjust to land.
Other tips to consider that might help lessen the effects of sea legs:
- It’s easier said than done, certainly… but try to lay off the booze during and post-cruise. Keep in mind, your inner ear is working overtime during your time on the boat or ship, and some studies have shown alcohol can throw that balancing act off even further. It can also dehydrate you and disrupt your sleep schedule, which could exacerbate the issue.
- Keep moving as much as you can after you disembark. Giving your body doses of that missing motion can help it better reset to land mode. Walking, jogging, and even riding in the car can make a difference.
- Dr. Ensrud also says taking time out for quiet activities could also help lessen the effect of sea legs and its longer-lasting counterpart, Mal de Debarquement Syndrome (MdDS), more quickly. “It’s possible that promoting the counteracting system — the parasympathetic system — through activities such as mindfulness or tai chi chuan may help more quickly cease the symptoms of MdDS,” he told me.
- Another thing to keep in mind: Worrying can make it worse! “It’s important to recognize and inform patients this syndrome is not a sign of underlying disease,” said Dr. Ensrud. “This knowledge can reduce the associated anxiety which prolongs symptoms due to over activation of the sympathetic nervous system — this is often involved in prolonging neurological symptoms.”
The Difference Between Sea Legs And Something More Serious
In rare circumstances, sea legs can linger. When that happens, doctors call it Mal de Debarquement Syndrome, or MdDS for short. The difference between the two is all about duration.
“Sea legs is generally thought of as a short-lived sensation lasting at most a day or two,” Dr. Ensrud told me. “MdDS can last much longer, and is considered persistent MDDS when lasting for more than three months.”
According to the MdDS Foundation, secondary symptoms of MdDS that can develop over time include fatigue, difficulty maintaining balance, unsteadiness, and difficulty concentrating. The good news is that the median length of duration for the disorder is about 4 months.
A Hormonal Connection?
The MdDS Foundation also notes that while the condition occurs in both genders and in all age groups, the highest reported incidence is in females between the ages of 30–60.
Given that fact, I asked Dr. Ensrud if there was any connection between perimenopause or menopause and sea legs or MdDS. He told me that while an interesting association, it’s far from a causal relationship. But that said:
“However, hormones and hormone shifts have significant effects on the central nervous system and the two could indeed be related — it’s unclear.”
Treatment Options Are Out There
For those suffering longer-term effects of MdDS, the idea of waiting for constant rocking and bobbing to go away on its own simply isn’t palatable. It’s important to note help is available that can help it resolve sooner. A couple of different classes of drugs, including benzodiazepines and SSRIs, have been shown to alleviate symptoms in some patients. Physical therapy, including balance and tracking exercises, can also lessen the duration and severity of MdDS.
Dr. Ensrud’s Own Experience
Dr. Ensrud doesn’t just have clinical or research experience in sea legs/MdDS. He actually had the condition himself back in 1999, so knows how frustrating and scary it can be for patients.
”The sensation was very bizarre,” he said. “It felt whenever walking that the ground was rocking beneath me. Fortunately, as a neurologist, I realized it was vestibular adaptation and could relent, which it eventually did spontaneously.”
Final Thoughts: For most of us, sea legs is an annoying but harmless after-effect of a fantastic vacation on the water… and you shouldn’t let it keep you from cruising. That said, if symptoms don’t subside after a couple of weeks, Dr. Ensrud recommends checking in with your physician. Also, if you know you are prone to the condition, you might want to amend cruise plans to include river voyages (fewer waves) instead of ocean crossings, which can be notoriously rough.