I’ve been talking lately about the fascinating, encouraging science around floatation therapy and how this peaceful, meditation-like practice can improve sleep and a whole range of health issues, mental, emotional and physical. Last time, I focused on the benefits of floating for psychological health. Today, I’m looking at what the science tells us about floatation therapy’s potential benefits in alleviating physical pain.
If you’ve ever drawn a bath at the end of a long day to ease sore muscles, found physical and mental relaxation in a lap session swim, and 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, or REST. For a refresher on how floating works, read my initial article, here.
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 in to 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 therapyfind 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 ant 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 5 countries. Participants with fibromyalgia underwent 3 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 bone at the joints. Both rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis result in pain, stiffness, inflammation, 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 1-hour float session after vigorous exerciseresulted 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, 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 combination of 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 creativityin a group of college jazz students. The group spent 4 weeks in 1-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 in to the performance-enhancing benefits of floating, physical and cognitive.
Some tips for floating well—and sleeping well after
Interested in floating? Float centers are cropping up all across the U.S. and around the world, so chances are there’s an opportunity to try floatation REST therapy near you. Here are some quick tips for getting the most out of your float experience.
BEFORE you float
Avoid caffeine and other stimulants.The day of your float, keep your caffeine consumption to a minimum, and avoid altogether within several hours of your float session. Caffeine elevates blood pressure and heart rate, sending your body in the opposite direction of floating’s relaxed, meditative state. Caffeine can also provoke stress, anxiety and nerves, which can detract from your float session. You’re likely to move more quickly and deeply into deep relaxation during floating if you skip the stimulants—and that includes sugar, as well as alcohol and nicotine.
Rest up, and stick to your regular bedtime.A good night’s sleep before you float can help keep you relaxed, feel less stressed and less physically tense heading in to your float session. But resist the temptation to mess around with your standard bedtime. Sticking to your regular bedtime will help keep your circadian rhythms on track, and allow floating to enhance your sleep without bio rhythm interference.
Don’t eat a heavy meal.A body that’s actively engaged in digestion is less capable of moving into a deeply relaxed state. Just like eating a heavy meal right before bed can interfere with sleep, having one before floating can make you uncomfortable and distracted by your body’s digestive function while you float. It’s also possible you’ll feel nauseated during a float if you’ve eaten heavily beforehand. Eat lightly before your float session. And be prepared to eat a healthful, satisfying meal afterward—you’re likely to feel quite hungry, and you want to reach for good, nutritious whole foods.
WHILE you float
Be patient.You know how when you climb into bed, it can take a little time to mentally and physically acclimate and relax? Something very similar is true for floating. It can take several minutes to relax into the experience, especially when float therapy is new for you. Don’t worry if you feel a little restless. Let the water hold you up like it’s a comfortable bed. And like you give yourself over to the onset of sleep, do the same with the consciousness-changing experience of floating.
Practice slow breathing.Slow, rhythmic breathing keeps you feeling centered and helps relax you physically. Studies show deep breathing focuses attention, reduces cortisol levels, and diminishes feelings of stress. Don’t force it, but do pay gentle attention to your breath, and to your breathing being relaxed and full.
AFTER you float
Give yourself time to recover.Floating puts you gently in a different state of consciousness, one that’s meditative and has characteristics of the consciousness of sleep. Your body and mind undergo a level of relaxation that may be new for you. To maximize the benefits of this experience, and keep you from feeling jarred by re-entry to the world, make sure you give yourself at least an hour on the other side of your float session to gradually recover and reflect on the experience.
Stick to your regular bedtime (again).After a float session, you may find yourself brimming with energy, ready to take on the world. You may find yourself wanting to be quiet, restful, and reflective. There is no wrong way to feel after a session of floatation therapy. As the science I’ve talked about indicates, the chances are very high you’ll sleep extremely well after you float. To keep your sleep-wake cycle and daily bio rhythms in sync, stick to your normal bed and wake times.
Look to make floating a practice. A great deal of research on float therapy indicates that its benefits are cumulative—they increase over time, when floating is conducting with some regularity. People who float often say the experience feels more powerful and transformative with time. Like other mind-body therapies such as meditation, yoga, and massage, the deepest, most lasting benefits of floating may come when it’s a routine practice.
I’d love to hear about your experiences with floatation REST therapy, so let me know how it goes!
Michael J. Breus, PhD, DABSM
The Sleep Doctor™