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The Many Benefits of Floatation Therapy

How might the pain-relieving powers of floating help your sleep and health?

Source: Depositphotos
Source: Depositphotos

If you’ve ever drawn a bath at the end of a long day to ease sore muscles, found physical and mental relaxation when swimming laps, or sought relief in the calm waters of a lake or the rhythmic waves of the ocean, you know the power that water can have in relieving physical and psychological tension.

Floatation therapy harnesses that essential power and combines it with the deeply relaxing properties of magnesium, and the calming, centering capabilities of restricted environmental stimulation therapy (REST).

Float therapy for pain relief

The characteristics of floatation therapy make it a strong fit for treating physical pain, helping the body recover from injury and pain-related illnesses, and rebound from vigorous physical exertion. Removing external stimuli from the float environment has the effect of all but eliminating the body’s internal stress response. Floating appears to take us out of “flight or fight” (a chronic state of physiological being for many of us) and moves us into “rest and recover.” That “fight or flight” stress response—with the excitatory hormones and inflammation surges that are a part of it—is a primary trigger for pain.

Short-term and chronic pain make sound, restful sleep difficult. Pain’s interference with sleep and quality of life can occur at any age; it becomes more common as we grow older. Similar to the way that psychological stress creeps into our daily lives, physical pain also can take up a sleep-disruptive presence in our lives, often without our full awareness.

And stress and pain frequently occur together, escalating one another in a debilitating cycle that’s particularly tough on sleep and our ability to feel and perform our best. That cycle of poor sleep, stress, and pain can also lead people to seek help from prescription sleep and pain medications, or to self-medication with alcohol, caffeine, and other drugs.

There’s a growing body of research that demonstrates the potential for floatation therapy to significantly improve physical pain. Studies show pain relief is one of the most prominent benefits of floatation REST therapy. While we’re still relatively early in exploring the full spectrum of possible therapeutic benefits, scientific research has investigated float therapy in treating many different types of pain and pain conditions, with promising results.

Muscle tension and stress-related pain. It’s not surprising to me that many studies of floatation therapy find simultaneous relief from physical pain and psychological distress, at the same time they experience improvements to sleep. The three are inextricably linked. Research shows pain can be reduced by floatation therapy, and so can chronic, stress-related muscle pain and the depression and anxiety that accompanies it.

A growing body of research is finding that floatation therapy is effective in reducing muscle pain and the physical pain connected to psychological stress, including headache, neck and back pain. Finding relief for chronic and intermittent physical pain and the psychological frustration that goes with it can remove major impediments for many adults who struggle to get the rest they need.

Fibromyalgia. Sleep troubles are a hallmark symptom and consequence of fibromyalgia. Widespread pain, and the tender points that people with fibromyalgia experience, make it difficult to get comfortable and relax, and to fall asleep and stay asleep. Recent research looked specifically at the effects of floatation therapy on fibromyalgia, in a study that spanned five countries.

Participants with fibromyalgia underwent three float sessions, and scientists measured and assessed pain levels before and after each float. Patients experienced a significant drop in pain sensitivity and pain intensity after each float session—and the pain-relieving benefits grew stronger the more sessions they completed. They also experienced significant improvements to muscle tension, ease of movement, and reductions in stress, anxiety, and feelings of sadness—and these benefits also grew stronger with each session. At the same time, fibromyalgia patients experienced increased energy, relaxation and well-being that became more pronounced with each additional session.

Osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. Arthritis, in its many different forms, is almost always accompanied by sleep issues. Float therapy has been shown to benefit two of the most common types of arthritis. Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disorder; joint pain derives from the immune system’s attack on its own tissues. Osteoarthritis is caused by wearing down of cartilage that protects the bone at the joints.

Both rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis result in pain, stiffness, inflammation, and restriction on mobility. They also lead to chronic difficulty sleeping, and the daytime fatigue that comes from losing sleep and coping with ongoing pain. Studies show that floatation rest is effective in treating pain, increasing strength and range of motion in people with rheumatoid arthritis, and improving pain and function in osteoarthritis, while also addressing the stress and anxiety that accompanies the condition.

Exercise recovery. Some promising research suggests the practice of floating is effective in helping the body heal and recover after exercise. This 2013 study found that a one-hour float session after vigorous exercise resulted in significant reductions to pain perception (essentially decreasing pain sensitivity), as well as significantly lower levels of blood lactate, a compound produced by the body during intense exertion.

Float therapy may help regular exercisers and recreational and professional athletes recover more quickly, and experience less pain. Exercise and sport are strongly influenced by sleep. Less pain means better rest, which translates to higher endurance, more power, speed, and strength, and a more consistent exercise routine.

The creative and cognitive benefits of floating

Enhanced physical performance isn’t the only kind of performance that may benefit from floatation therapy, according to research. Practitioners of floating routinely talk passionately about the powerful focusing effect that floating has on the mind, and the creative juices it unleashes.

Scientific research suggests that the reduction in tension and stress, combined with the uptick in energy that floating provides, is likely behind the creativity boost that floaters experience. This 2011 study measured floating’s effects on creativity in a group of college jazz students.

The group spent four weeks in one-hour weekly float sessions. Compared to a control group, the floating group performed better in a blind-scoring of improvised jazz performances—and they also received higher grades. I’m particularly interested in seeing scientists continue to dig into the performance-enhancing benefits of floating, physical and cognitive.

I’d love to hear about your experiences with floatation REST therapy, so let me know how it goes!

More from Michael J. Breus Ph.D.
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