Can Sensory Deprivation via Float Therapy Offer Pain Relief for Fibromyalgia and Other Chronic Pain Conditions?

Featured Image (top) taken by Sabina Walker, author of this blog, Pain Matters.

(Yes, I was doing my own ‘float therapy’ in the ocean…and I captured the moment…)

Last year, I met a woman in her 50’s who had fibromyalgia.  I learned more about fibromyalgia from her than from any textbook.  She told me that ‘while she has to live with fibromyalgia, she refuses to let it define her life’.

As the conversation progressed, she told me something very fascinating.  She told me that the only time that she is ever completely free of pain was during float therapy.  In other words, she has nil pain during float therapy!  Isn’t that amazing?

I was amazed by this last bit of information from her.  I thought to myself, how can this be??

I asked her twice,

“So you have NO pain during float therapy?”

She restated, for the second time:

“Absolutely no pain during float therapy.”

I asked,

“How often do you do float therapy?”

She answered,

“Not often enough…I can’t afford to do it very often.”

Admittedly, I was saddened by the fact that it was the lack of finances that was blocking her access to a pain-free state.

What is Float Therapy?:

Since most people with chronic pain (e.g. fibromyalgia) do not live near a warm ocean (including the Dead Sea, the saltiest sea on earth), it may be worthwhile for them to try an isolation (floatation) tank filled with pleasantly warm, very salty water (e.g. Epson salt plus fresh water), surrounded by warm air, for 60-90 minutes instead.

Jenn-8-1024x682.jpg

Credit/Source of YouTube and Photo:

Float House (http://www.floathouse.ca

Wearing nothing except a ‘birthday suit’ and some earplugs (to block out all external noise) and floating effortlessly in warm, salty water in complete darkness in a tank enables the patient to focus only on the sounds of his/her own body including the sounds of the:

  • Heartbeat;
  • Breath; and
  • GI tract.

Floating on an ‘aqueous mattress’ in pitch-black darkness in a warm and quiet tank can stop the brain from receiving its usual incoming stream of external sensory input including visual (from retinal stimuli), auditory and smell sensation.

Float therapy also leads to nil tactile sensation as the patient does not touch anything while floating.

Being surrounded by air and water that are both perfectly matched to skin temperatures (~34°C, or ~94°F) temporarily alleviates the need to thermoregulate.  This additional source of sensory deprivation results when the warm water no longer provides any sensory stimulation to the brain, and consequently, the brain no longer perceives a boundary between the skin/body and the water.

Sensory deprivation in a zero-gravity environment, due to the reduced demand on the brain to control muscles, is a temporary ‘detachment from all external chatter’ due to a complete loss of all sensation including even a ‘lost’ sense of gravity.  This deeply relaxing state enables the patient to focus on his/her inner self instead of continuously being distracted by external stimuli and stressors.

For many, sensory deprivation via float therapy offers an antidote to the many stresses of everyday life.  Studies show that float therapy can lead to reduced blood pressure and decreased stress hormone (cortisol) levels that persist even after cessation of float therapy.  Decreased anxiety and stress as well as reduced depression can result from float therapy.

Float therapy, where the patient sees and feels nothing (not even gravity), and hears only the sound of his/her body, can quickly facilitate a state of meditation (without even trying).  It can be a ‘shortcut’ to a meditative state for those who may find meditation difficult.

Justin Feinstein, Clinical Neuropsychologist at the Float Clinic and Research Center, Tulsa, Oklahoma, USA, prefers to use the term ‘sensory enhancement’ (instead of ‘sensory deprivation’).  An earlier researcher, Dr Roderick Borrie, preferred ‘REST’, or ‘Restricted Environmental Stimulation Therapy’.

For some people (including the woman I met who has fibromyalgia – see above), sensory deprivation via float therapy can lead to complete pain relief while relaxing in the floatation tank.

A Study on Float Therapy and Fibromyalgia:

Patients with fibromyalgia (n=81) participated in a study involving 3 float therapy sessions.  Many participants benefited from temporary reductions in pain, muscle tension, stress, anxiety and sadness.  Furthermore, the patients were significantly more relaxed and enjoyed a greater sense of well-being as well as increased energy, enhanced ease of movement and improved quality of sleep during each of the 3 float therapy sessions (Borrie et al, 2012).

Summary:

In addition to the woman living with fibromyalgia (described above), I wonder if other chronic pain including fibromyalgia patients may obtain pain relief from float therapy, and if so, which ones?  Research is warranted.

Fibromyalgia and other chronic pain sufferers are encouraged to try float therapy .  After all, there are nil side effects from float therapy other than a risk of claustrophobia or nausea.  In the event of discomfort, patients are welcome to leave the floatation tank at any time.

Sabina Walker

“Sedare dolorem divinum opus est”

“It is divine to alleviate pain”

Galen, 130-200 C.E.

REFERENCES

(1) Can Float Therapy Really Treat Stress?

Mandy Oaklander

TIME (27 July 2015)

(2) Floating Away: The Science of Sensory Deprivation Therapy

Shelly Fan

Discover Magazine (4 April 2014)

http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/crux/2014/04/04/floating-away-the-science-of-sensory-deprivation-therapy/#.V8jnBmX8f8s

(3) The Effects of Flotation REST on the Symptoms of Fibromyalgia

Roderick Borrie, Tamara Russell, Stefan Schneider

Presented 21 April 2012 at Float Summit 2012 in Gothenburg, Sweden

http://fibromyalgiaflotationproject.com/files/flotation-fibromyalgia-pilot-study-full.pdf

(4) More On Fibromyalgia 

Dr. Katinka van der Merwe. Taming the Beast: A Guide to Conquering Fibromyalgia (13 November 2013); 270 pages.

 

ISBN-10: 1491089903

ISBN-13: 978-1491089903

 

 

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