In the 1950s, physician John C. Lilly invented a peculiar type of treatment called Floatation REST (reduced environmental stimuli therapy). These float tanks were specifically designed to minimize sensory input in order to treat a variety of conditions, not the least of which is chronic pain. Float tanks, also known more negatively as sensory deprivation tanks, are gaining popularity as a complementary treatment for everything from chronic pain to post-traumatic stress disorder. Here’s how they work.
The float tank itself is the size of a double bed. It is filled with water that is heated to skin temperature (approximately 91 degrees) so that the sensation of the water on the skin is imperceptible. The water is saturated with Epsom salts (magnesium sulfate) to the same density as the water in the Dead Sea. This allows the patient to be fully supported by the water with no effort expended to keep the mouth and nose above the water line.
People who utilize float tanks are often referred to as “floaters.” Floaters shower before entering the tank, either floating unclothed or in a bathing suit. Float sessions can last anywhere from 30 to 90 minutes. First-time floaters may need some time to adjust to the environment of the tank, so a session of at least one hour is recommended.
The benefits of float tanks
Be Free Floating, a small float tank company in Baltimore, cites the following benefits of float tanks:
- Relaxation: The full support of a floater’s body and the lack of sensory input allows the floater to go deeply inside their mind. Endorphins flood the body during the session. The relaxation is so complete that some floaters fall asleep inside the float tank.
- Biologic changes: Heart rate, blood pressure, and muscle tension all decrease while floating.
- Transdermal magnesium intake: Magnesium is essential to over 300 functions in the body, but people in the U.S. are chronically lacking in this important mineral. Transdermal supplementation of magnesium is the most effective delivery system. Float tanks offer an easy way to supplement this crucial mineral.
- Pain relief: The zero-gravity environment of the tank allows the spine to fully extend, relieving back pain due to compression. This is a temporary type of pain relief, but for someone struggling with chronic back pain it can be a welcome, relaxing respite.
What the research says
Research conducted by Thomas H. Fine, associate professor in the department of psychiatry of the Medical College of Ohio, and Roderick A. Borrie, Ph.D., clinical psychologist at South Oaks Hospital, Amityville, New York found that:
“[F]lotation REST can have an important role at several stages of the pain management process. By reducing both muscle tension and pain in a relatively short time and without effort on the part of the patient, flotation provides a dramatic demonstration of the benefits of relaxation. Relief is immediate and, although temporary, offers promise of further relief from REST and other relaxation-based strategies. Symptom reduction gained from flotation can increase a patient’s motivation and interest in the remainder of the therapy plan. Pain patients generally come into treatment feeling suspicious and skeptical, requiring a clear demonstration that they can be helped.”
For pain patients who utilized float tanks for six months, the average reduction in pain was just over 31%, with the highest relief reported for upper back pain (just over 63%). Patients floated anywhere from one to 16 sessions.
These benefits are not restricted to pain relief. Other research has shown that float tanks can improve everything from creativity to athletic prowess.
Researchers Oshin Vartanian of the University of Toronto and Peter Suedfeld of the University of British Columbia found that musicians who floated in the tank for one hour per week for four weeks showed better technical ability at the end of the research. The researchers compared two-minute recordings before and after from the study participants and the control group and found “a significant difference between the treatment and comparison groups on technical ability, but not on any other dimension.”
When float tanks are combined with positive imagery, athletic performance also improved without any other adjustments to amount or duration of practice. Simply floating in the tank and allowing the body and mind to fully relax seems to be what athletes need to recharge and regroup.
Questions and concerns
For first-time floaters, float tanks may be intimidating. The space is enclosed, and the act of floating is a foreign one. Some frequently asked questions include:
Are float tanks hygienic?
The water in the float tanks is saturated with magnesium sulfate nearly to the point of crystallization, just like the Dead Sea. And, just like the Dead Sea, this is not an environment in which bacteria can live. In addition, float tanks come with a filter system that automatically filters the water after each session. Finally, floaters are asked to shower before they enter the tank, further minimizing the amount of bacteria or dirt they introduce to the tank.
Is there anyone who shouldn’t float?
Because the float tank is small and enclosed, floating may be difficult for people with claustrophobia. There are float tanks that have small windows that may help with this, but for some that might not be enough room. Those who suffer from anxiety may also find the initial sessions difficult.
How many sessions are required?
There is no perfect number of sessions, but for first-time floaters it is best to schedule a series. The sensations experienced in the tank (e.g., deep relaxation, minimal sensory input, weightlessness) may be strange and take some getting used to.
Be Free Floating recommends starting with a series of three, offering a reduced price for first-time floaters. Ultimately it is up to the floater to decide what works best for them.
Would you consider trying a float tank to manage your chronic pain?