Flotation Therapy: All it’s Cracked Up to Be?

Article posted in: Lifestyle
sensory deprivation flotation therapy

America’s trendiest pain reliever, sensory deprivation therapy, is reported to stimulate creativity, relieve post-workout muscle pain, give users visions, reduce fibromyalgia pain, and—no kidding—improve the golf scores of those using the therapy.

That’s some pill—except it’s not a pill at all. It’s a 200-gallon tank of salt water.

Sensory deprivation therapy—also known as Restricted Environmental Stimulation Therapy (REST) or simply “flotation therapy”—is all the rage, with offices filled with giant, salt-filled tanks popping up in strip malls across the country. Users submerge themselves in water that’s had 900-1000 pounds of epsom salts dissolved in it, so the body floats effortlessly, with just the face and upper parts of the front of the body exposed. The water is heated to 93-94 degrees to match the temperature of human skin, so that soon after beginning to float, the sensation of the water is barely noticed, if at all. The user is then shut into the tank in total darkness and quiet.

The resulting feeling is… nothing: Nothing to see, hear or feel. Once there, users stay there, deprived of sensory stimulation for sessions lasting about an hour. And then those benefits reportedly start to happen: The pain relief, visions, reduced soreness and improved golf game—and they’re backed up by some preliminary studies.

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Twenty-four untrained male students were studied for a workout recovery study: Half of them followed up a leg workout with an hour of floating, and the other half relaxed for an hour in a chair. The floaters had significantly lower blood lactate levels after recovery than the sitting group, and reported less post-workout pain the day of the workout.

As for creativity: In one study, 40 university students increased their scores on a standardized test designed to measure creativity and, in another study, those who floated scored better in a jazz improvisation class. And 33 female fibromyalgia sufferers tried floating three times each, and self-reported decreases in fibromyalgia-related pain of up to 33 percent that lasted as long as two-and-a-half-days.

And then there’s that golf benefit: In a very small study—just 50 professional golfers—75 percent of those who underwent 10 hours of sensory deprivation by way of float therapy improved their scores by an average of two strokes each. Those who did not do the REST therapy did not see a change in their scores. So don’t sign up for floats thinking you’ll be sinking tons of birdies.

All of these studies are pretty small, so the benefits aren’t rock-solid, slam dunk science. But there’s one benefit that isn’t in doubt: Floating is relaxing. In a 1997 analysis of more than 1,000 descriptions of the experience, more than 90 percent of those polled found the experience “deeply relaxing.” If that sounds worth a try in a dark, soundless, sense-free chamber, you can try flotation therapy for $50 to $80 the first time out at many float centers. Buying the experience in batches can bring the price down.

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If you fall in love and find yourself floating all the time, can it replace every other restorative therapy out there—like foam rolling and massage?

Not precisely: While in the study above, exercisers who floated had lower blood lactate levels, they didn’t experience lower levels of muscle soreness, which massage can help alleviate. And floating in the tank won’t undo the types of fascial buildups and knots that foam rolling can break up and relieve. But it can offer the stress-relieving benefits of those therapies, which may be all you’re after—which could mean floating might be just your cup of really, really salty water.