Nausea Is Not The Same For Everyone

July 30, 1996

A woman calls her doctor and reports feeling nauseous; she has the morning sickness of pregnancy. A second woman calls her doctor with nausea accompanied by eye pain; she has a migraine headache. Does the nausea feel the same to both women? New research suggests that it probably doesn't. Nausea can be caused by a host of conditions and situations -- pregnancy, motion sickness, chemotherapy and migraines, to name a few. The data show that the experience varies widely from one individual to the next. Nausea has now been scientifically investigated and defined by researchers in a multi-year study of 1,695 Penn State students. The research shows that nausea means different things to different people, thus an accurate description is central to the diagnosis and treatment of the disease or condition. Researchers have discovered 17 descriptors that define -- in a specific and statistically significant way -- the feelings that come under the umbrella of nausea. Depending on the individual, nausea may mean stomach sickness to one person, but another may use it to describe dizziness or lightheadedness. Lead author of the study Eric Muth, a graduate student in experimental psychology, is conducting his doctoral research at The Hershey Medical Center. He studies gastrointestinal psychophysiology, or how the brain and gut interact. Extensive testing and statistical studies resulted in a list of 17 descriptors to define nausea. Each of these was rated on a scale of 0 to 9. Based on these ratings, the descriptors were clustered into three groups: somatic or body distress; gastrointestinal distress and emotional distress. Subjects reported somatic distress as feeling: fatigue, weak, hot, sweaty, lightheaded, shakiness. Gastrointestinal distress was reported as feeling: sick, stomach awareness or discomfort, a feeling as if he or she might vomit, ill, queasy. Emotional distress was reported as feeling: nervous, scared or afraid, worried, upset, panic, hopeless. The authors point out that "The ability to quantify nausea and its dimensions using the nausea profile will allow researchers and clinicians to differentiate what was previously assumed to be a homogeneous state or condition and to focus on appropriate treatments." Muth collaborated in this study with Dr. Kenneth Koch, professor of gastroenterology in the College of Medicine, and Robert Stern, professor of psychology. Koch and Stern are leaders in the study of nausea and motion sickness.

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Penn State

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