RANDOLPH AIR FORCE BASE, Texas –
Even the bravest fighter pilots and toughest medevac helicopter pilots may occasionally need an airsickness bag.
Airsickness has nothing to do with how tough or strong someone is. It's a complex problem with a variety of causes which affects many people to varying degrees, and after three episodes of air sickness the member is referred to the flight surgeon for evaluation.
A popular hypothesis for the cause of motion sickness is sensory conflict - the eyes see one thing, the inner ear feeling something else and the skin saying the body isn't moving, all at the same time. Two other causes are anxiety and lack of adaptation to the flying environment.
The 359th Aerospace Medical Squadron is equipped to help both new and seasoned pilots and aircrew overcome air sickness through simple, but very effective means using progressive relaxation techniques and a device called a Barany chair, named after Hungarian Nobel-laureate physiologist Robert Bárány.
A Barany chair was used several times in Discovery television series "Mythbusters," in experiments involving motion sickness.
The 359th AMDS uses a process which takes three consecutive days and has a very high success rate.
"Pilots are our primary customer," said 2nd Lieutenant Shannon Scannon, 359th AMDS aerospace and operational physiologist. "Any air crew member can be put in the chair."
The first day of training, the patients are interviewed to find potential causes of their air sickness.
They're asked about their when they felt sick and in what phase of flight their symptoms may have appeared, as well as specific diet, sleep patterns and what fluids they drank.
After the interview they're strapped into the Barany chai and spun at a steady pace in the same direction and spun in a steady pace in the same direction to stimulate their vestibular system, the part of the inner ear responsible for equilibrium.
"Our goal is to spin them at about 25 revolutions per minute," Lieutenant Scannon said. "It's just enough to get the fluid in the ears moving."
She said 25 RPM is just enough to make the patient feel like they're moving. Rotating too slowly or too quickly has no benefit.
The patients are spun three times for 10 minutes each with 10-minute breaks between spins.
While they are rotating, they have to perform tasks or exercises, such as leaning their head to the left or right, which can be surprisingly disorienting.
Lieutenant Scannon said the first day is not very aggressive, but as the three days continue, the training can be more intense, but as the days continue the training becomes more intense.
She said the goal of the training isn't to induce vomiting, rather to help pilots and aircrew members "become acclimated to the motion and learn techniques they can use to overcome airsickness."
"I never had anyone actively get sick on the third day," Lieutenant Scannon said.
"We want to help them learn techniques to minimize air sickness to complete their mission," Lieutenant Scannon said.
In concert with rotating in the Barany chair, the 359th AMDS teaches progressive relaxation techniques to combat anxiety and to have a calm state of mind and relaxed body.
She said progressive relaxation is a process that has two key elements: diaphragmatic breathing and muscle tensing. A brochure available in the 359th AMDS suggests there are three key elements, with visual imagery being the third.
Visual imagery is mentally removing oneself to somewhere less stressful. It may be a calm or stormy day at the beach or a child's birthday party, someplace happy or calm.
Diaphragmatic breathing is the first stage in the training. It teaches a relaxed but deliberate breathing rhythm using abdominal muscles, inhaling through the nose and exhaling through the mouth.
The second step is muscle tensing. This step teaches one to focus on clenching and releasing various muscle groups in the body, which eases anxiety and also forces one to be physically relaxed.
She said the Barany chair is a more extreme version of the sensations pilots and air crew may feel in an aircraft.
"If they make it through the chair," Lieutenant Scannon said," they should be able to fly."
The 359th AMDS Aerospace and Operational Training Flight stresses that they are standing by to assist any aircrew member with this or any other type of human-factors-related issue.