Mal de Debarquement

I have a patient with very unusual visual symptoms and sense of imbalance that has persisted for more than a year.  She describes very unusual and concerning symptoms including true diplopia, a sense of major visual disturbances like the floor buckling in her visual fields, vertigo, severe sense of imbalance and swaying, headache, memory fog and concentration difficulty. Of note is that her symptoms seemed to start after a cruise.  I had no idea what was causing her symptoms, and asked her to see both an ophthalmologist and a neurologist.  Most recently she consulted a neuro-opthalmologist and was given a diagnosis of Mal de Debarquement. He did hedge by asking her to also consult a retinal specialist and a vestibular ENT specialist, but he seemed pretty confident of the diagnosis.  I admit I’d never heard of this disorder until she mentioned it. I am glad I’d never had a patient who had symptoms consistent with Mal de Debarquement before because it seems a really miserable problem without effective treatment. My wife tells patients to pray that their physician finds their medical history to be uninteresting, never have a condition your doctor will find interesting.  Interesting problems are too often also difficult. This is a perfect example.

Mal de Debarquement is a syndrome that usually but not always occurs after an experience of prolonged motion like being on a cruise ship, shorter boating expedition or even an airplane or car ride.  On debarking (debarquement in French) the affected person perceives a sense of movement, unusual visual symptoms, and sometimes cognitive problems like memory loss, difficulty with multi-tasking and trouble with screen situations like using a computer or watching television.

Strangely in many patients these symptoms are reduced when actually in motion like in a car, on a boat or plane.  This seems counterintuitive, but having this phenomenon is a clue to the diagnosis in many patients.  Unlike motion sickness the persons who develop this generally were not sick during motion.  The relatively common condition of “land-sickness” or post motion vertigo is brief, differentiating it from Mal de Debarquement which lasts months to years.

The incidence of Mal de Debarquement is not known, but it is felt to be either very uncommon or rare, and to be under-diagnosed and under-reported. It seems to be much more common in women with one series published in 1999 in JAMA Otolaryngology Head & Neck Surgery of 27 patients having 26 females.  The mean age of onset is 49 in this same series. There seemed to be little or no relationship to menopausal status. The authers do not feel this is a migrane phenomenon. Although Mal de Debarquement is by definition a long-lasting condition it does seem to often improve to some degree with time. No specific treatments have been shown to be effective.  Typical treatments for vertigo like meclazine and scopolamine patches do not seem to help. Benzodiazepines may give some relief.

I hope my patient improves over time if she in fact has Mal de Debarquement, and hope this post will increase awareness of this condition in readers.

3 Responses to Mal de Debarquement

  1. Wendy says:

    Rosemary, did your ENT have any reason that he thinks there’s a viral connection? I’ve never heard this before. I’m on episode #4 since 2007, after I got off a 8 day cruise and didn’t get my landlegs back. Only laste about 3 weeks the first 2 episodes. 7 weeks on episode 3, now 3 months + on episode 4. Can be triggered by a car ride or elevator ride now. (Be careful with the Klonopin; I was too sensitive to it, could only tolerate, barely, .125 of a 1 mg tablet, also made me drunk feeling, maybe moreso than the MdDS). Thanks Dr. Pullen for giving some more awareness to this!

  2. Rosemary Stanford says:

    I had the first episode from a cruise and the second after a road trip. My doctor is treating me with a antiviral drug and klonopin. He said that the same virus that causes chicken pox caused this. He is an ENT specialist. I have been on this antiviral for a month with wonderful results. I had not read on the MdDS website or the Facebook page for MdDS of any other person receiving this same treatment. It’s working!!!

  3. MdDS Foundation says:

    Thank you so much, Dr. Pullen, for this post. Your consideration and desire to raise awareness is very much appreciated. We hope you will visit the MdDS Balance Disorder Foundation website, to discover many newer findings published by respected medical professionals. http://www.mddsfoundation.org/professionals/literature/

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