Chronic pain in the summertime can be a double whammy of discomfort. Those suffering from chronic pain find that relaxation and sleep is even harder to come by due to the heat, and lack of sleep can intensify pain. It’s a vicious circle. There are ways to beat the heat in the summer, including keeping a cool, dark bedroom for sleeping, exercising in the morning when it is coolest, and eating refreshing summer fruits and veggies to keep your internal fires cool.

In addition to those tips, many chronic pain sufferers find relief through meditation.

One way to get your zen on is by visiting a float tank, also known as a sensory deprivation tank. Flotation REST (reduced environmental stimuli therapy) was developed in the 1950s by John C. Lilly, M.D. and uses a water-filled tank that is approximately the size of a bed and heated to skin temperature. The water is saturated with Epsom salts so that the patient can float without any effort.

Patients remove their clothes, enter the tank, turn off the lights, and relax. The idea is that this sensation of zero stimuli will help to focus inward, eliminating distractions and calming the mind and body. The Fibromyalgia Floatation Project (FFP) believes that spending an hour in a float tank will help sufferers reduce pain significantly.

Some of the potential benefits for fibromyalgia include:

  • Eliminates stress, or improves ability to handle stress better, by lowering cortisol
  • Promotes deep rest, eliminating fatigue
  • Aids in combating insomnia
  • Improves focus and concentration
  • Increases dopamine production, the “feel good” hormone produced by the brain
  • Reduces pain by relaxation and hormone production

When external stimuli are eliminated, the fight-or-flight response is deactivated. This response is the cornerstone of the stress response, and many chronic pain sufferers are constantly in this state of stress as their body reacts to pain. Chronic stress increases pain intensity. Eliminating or coping with stress better can help decrease sensitivity to pain.

For pain management specifically, Float Sanctuary offers the following benefits for those suffering a variety of pain conditions:

  • Manages arthritis, back pain, sports injuries, and pregnancy discomforts
  • Improves chronic pain conditions
  • Relieves pain and emotional stress for fibromyalgia patients
  • Creates an ideal environment for pain relief with weightlessness and lack of effort
  • Floating provides natural traction for a wide range of spine-related injuries

These claims are supported by research done 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. They 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.”

In their research, they found extraordinary benefits for chronic pain patients. Most of the patients that utilized flotation REST suffered from chronic pain for longer than six months and floated from one to 16 sessions. Overall, they reported a reduction in pain that averaged 31.3%, with the highest level of relief in the upper back at 63.6%, and the lowest in the legs at 15.3%. This seems to be a “clear demonstration” that float tanks help with chronic pain.

A small-scale 2012 study also showed the profound benefits of float tanks. 81 volunteers with fibromyalgia were given three free float sessions in exchange for feedback on a questionnaire.  Across the board, participants reported an immediate drop in pain and an increase in well-being. They also indicated a drop in pain over the course of the three sessions, so that their pain levels when they entered the tank were lower than they had been when they entered in the previous sessions.

This result speaks to the long-term potential for pain reduction.

In addition to chronic pain, advocates of flotation therapy also tout its benefits for creativity and excellence in sports. 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.”

College athletes benefited from REST also. Multiple studies have found that when combined with imagery, athletes from gymnasts to professional tennis players to collegiate basketball players improved performance measurably over the long term.

Float tanks have not always enjoyed a positive association.

In 1980, the movie Altered States introduced the world to the hallucinatory dangers of the sensory deprivation experience. Five sensory deprivation techniques were used to interrogate suspects in Northern Ireland in the 1970s, techniques that when combined were considered torture.  Of these techniques, though, none were similar to the technique of flotation REST, and it is important to distinguish between sensory deprivation as torture (i.e., hooding and deprivation of sleep for a long period of time) and elimination of external stimuli that a person can control (floaters are always able to exit the tank when they need to).

Research does seem to indicate that float tanks help with chronic pain, and this is good news for sufferers. Especially when pain is flaring up in the summer heat, anything with the potential to alleviate pain is welcome.

Would you try flotation REST, or float tanks, for your chronic pain? Why or why not?

Image by William Warby  via Flickr


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