Can Skiing Cause Vertigo or Motion Sickness?

by Simon Naylor | Updated: October 27th, 2022 |  Skiing Articles
If you suffer from vertigo (the sensation that the world is spinning) or you suffer from motion sickness or a fear of heights, you might be wondering if and when skiing can trigger these symptoms and what, if anything, can be done about.

What is vertigo?

Vertigo is the feeling that everything around you is spinning and you feel like you can't balance. (it's more than feeling dizzy). Vertigo is a panic attack and intense feeling that can last a few seconds to a few hours or more (source). Vertigo can also be triggered by the fear of heights, and this is called height vertigo or more precisely acrophobia. People with acrophobia often experience panic in high places and become too stressed to move (source). The most common form of vertigo (BPPV) is caused when your head is tilted at an angle and loose fragments of calcium carbonate crystals break off the lining of the inner ear and send confusing messages to your brain (source). The BPPV form of vertigo may occur for no obvious reason, but may be more likely to happen after an ear infection, head injury or prolonged bed rest and affect people over 50 more often (source). Most people who experience motion sickness in other areas of their life are more prone to experience symptoms of vertigo or ski sickness (source). Can skiing trigger vertigo or ski sickness? Unfortunately, some aspects of skiing can cause what's known as ski sickness or trigger panic attacks if people suffer from vertigo or acrophobia (source). Primary causes of Ski Sickness:
  1. Riding gondolas or chairlifts. Because these rise high above the mountain and over steep slopes, this can trigger panic and fear in some skiers.
  2. Downhill skiing, you can quickly pick up speed and this fast movement can trigger vertigo and motion sickness.
  3. Looking down any steep slopes while skiing can trigger height vertigo or acrophobia.
  4. In a whiteout or low visibility weather, when it's difficult to tell the difference between the white ground and the white sky, skiers can become very disoriented and experience severe ski sickness, symptoms may include dizziness, headaches, nausea and in extreme cases vomiting (source).
Psychological factors such as fear of heights, fear of mountains, high speed and falling may contribute as well as the atmospheric pressure changes in the ear when descending rapidly from high to low altitude. Acta Otolaryngol on Ski Sickness

Can you ski without triggering ski sickness?

While there is no way to completely mitigate ski sickness as each sufferer has different triggers and sensitivites - there are ways to continue skiing while lowering the chances of any panic attack happening.

Only use drag lifts.

A drag lift (aka Button lift or T-bar) pulls you up the slope while your skis are on the ground. While not all resorts have drag lifts or access to these lifts without first riding a gondola, some smaller ski resorts do. If you can ride get away with riding only drag lifts of magic carpets (new skiers) then you'll be exposed to less heights and hopefully less chance of triggering height vertigo or ski sickness. Postalm in Austria is one such resort that has plenty of drag lifts, as well as many resorts in Poland and Slovakia (source). If you have to use a chair lift, don't look down and when you're at the top, don't look over ledges or too far into the distance. Don't raise the bar on the chairlift too early and if you're wearing a backpack take it off and sit it on your lap, so you're not perched so far forward.

Ski long shallow slopes

Stick to green or easy blue runs and avoid coming into contact with steep gradients that are found on more advanced trails (like red or black runs). While it might not be as challenging for you if your a good skier, at least you'll be able to ski and lower your chances of getting the symptoms of ski sickness. If you want to go steeper, work up slowly. Get very comfortable on one run before moving to the next. This applies to all skiers: only ski color trails that match your level of skiing.

'S' shape

If you find yourself coming to a steep section, DON'T STOP at the top and look down. Looking down steep sections is the fastest way to develop a fear. Start skiing without over-thinking about it and break each section into chunks. It's better to stop mid-way through the slope than at the top of a steep section. Ski long rounded S shapes and control your speed through the full arc of the turns. Short sharp skiing is faster and more disorientating.

Ski with someone who understands

It's better not to keep your symptoms to yourself, ski with someone who knows that you may need some extra support or help getting down the mountain if you suffer a panic attack. Having someone there for support in the tough times, will make you more relaxed knowing you're not alone.
If you feel the start of any oncoming symptoms, stop and try to relax. Stop skiing, take off your skis and boots and take a break.

Feeling motion while trying to sleep

A common feeling that many skiers have after a long hard session on the slopes, is the sensation of swishing down the slopes as they're nodding off to sleep. This is something I have experienced a few times and most commonly happen after my first day of the season skiing. It's a common experience and happens to many skiers and it shouldn't be a major concern. However if you feel ill or the feeling persists contact your doctor.

Read the book: Inner Skiing

Author Timothy Gallwey has written a book about overcoming the fear of skiing and while it's not specifically about ski sickness, it's principles will help you stay calm and relaxed on the slopes - making it less likely that you suffer from a panic attack. You can get the book on Amazon for $15. The book helps you to focus on each step of your skiing technique and teaches you to gain an inner-confidence that will allow you to relax, concentrate and banish unnecessary fears. The book will help you distinguish between healthy rational fear and unnecessary fear.
There is a magic in skiing when all is going well that transcends anything I have experience in other sports. As I soar down a mountainside letting my body find its own balance in turn after turn, my mind as clear as the cold air against my face, my heart feel as warm as the sun, as I attaain a level of experience which comples me to return to the snow for more and more of the same. But too often this magic turns to misery... Passage from Inner skiing

Altitude Sickness

In some high altitude ski resorts, skiers can suffer a lack of oxygen to the brain with can cause altitude sickness or AMS. Symptoms may include *headaches, vomiting, extreme dizziness (source) and should not be confused with ski sickness or vertigo. *Headaches are often caused by dehydration. Altitude sickness is most common above 2,500 meters (8,000ft) and some people are affected at lower altitudes. Being physically fit does not decrease the risk (source). About 20% of people who rapidly rise to 2,500 meters suffer from altitude sickness. To mitigate the risk of altitude sickness, ascend slowly, drink plenty of water and take it easy the first few days untill your body has acclimitised. If the symptoms are severe, immediately descend lower and/or seek medical advice.

Final thoughts

Every new skier experiences fears, doubts, and trepidation, but for some, there are more troubling and uncontrollable effects that can be overwhelming. For these skiers, there are ways to lessen the likelihood of being triggered.  Overtime as confidence builds so does their resilience and potential to overcome.
Disclaimer: I am not a doctor and although I extensively researched this topic before writing about it, the content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your doctor.