Fibromyalgia is a pain condition that affects between 2 and 10% of the population in the U.S. It generally affects more women than men at a ratio of 9:1. One way to treat not only the fibromyalgia pain, but also the stress and anxiety that may accompany it is trying float tanks for fibromyalgia.
How do float tanks for fibromyalgia work?
Flotation REST (reduced environmental stimuli therapy) was developed in the 1950s by John C. Lilly, M.D. It 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 a person 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. The project selected fibromyalgia as the condition for their case studies because the symptoms of fibromyalgia match the potential benefits of REST.
Benefits of float tanks for fibromyalgia
The benefits of float tanks for fibromyalgia have been studied for several decades. They have been shown to include the following.
Relief of stress
Thomas H. Fine, an associate professor in the department of psychiatry of the Medical College of Ohio and Roderick A. Borrie, a clinical psychologist at South Oaks Hospital in Amityville, New York, co-authored a seminal article examining the clinical effects of REST on the stress response.
They identified blood pressure, cortisol production, and muscle activity as key indicators of stress in the body. Their findings indicated that cortisol production decreased during floatation REST sessions and that:
“[There exists] the possibility of a resetting of the regulatory mechanism of cortisol across sessions. Furthermore, cortisol, which has received more attention than the other hormones [in its role as an indicator of stress], and blood pressure, have been shown to maintain the REST effect after cessation of repeated REST sessions (Turner & Fine, 1983). This phenomenon suggests that the REST effect may be more than a simple, immediately reversible response.”
Alleviation of depression and anxiety
Float tanks for fibromyalgia have been shown to alleviate depression and anxiety with the mood elevation effects of deep relaxation. Fine and Borrie found that the effects were most pronounced when flotation REST was utilized in conjunction with other forms of counseling.
They caution, however, that severely depressed patients may need close monitoring due to the sometimes obsessive nature of thinking that can occur in the flotation tank.
Promotion of better, more restful sleep
Relaxation alone equals better, more restful sleep, and the deep relaxation of float tanks for fibromyalgia can help. Many fibromyalgia patients also suffer from restless leg syndrome, so getting a good night’s sleep can be difficult.
Since fatigue can exacerbate symptoms of fibromyalgia, the sleep-promoting deep relaxation can be a vital benefit of flotation REST.
Perhaps one of the most important benefits of float tanks for fibromyalgia is relief from pain. Fine and Borrie noted that:
“Flotation 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.”
Many patients who have dealt with fibromyalgia for a long period of time give up hope for new treatments. When they realize that float tanks can help manage pain, their mental outlook may change and they may be more confident in their treatment plan.
Relief of muscle tightness
The stiffness and muscle tightness of fibromyalgia can be addressed by float tanks. A small 2012 study found that pain due to tightness of muscles was decreased significantly after just three sessions in the float tanks.
The pain-relieving effects lasted for a significant period after the treatment, which also helped to alleviate mood and make the study participants more hopeful. This increased optimism translates into better opportunities for successful treatment all around.
Corrects magnesium deficiency
Magnesium is essential to over 300 functions in the body, but people in the U.S. are chronically lacking in this important mineral. Transdermal supplementation of magnesium is the most effective delivery system. Fibromyalgia sufferers may have a magnesium deficiency that actually causes or contributes to their pain.
The magnesium solution in fibromyalgia float tanks can be absorbed through the skin. This helps to alleviate that deficiency without taking additional supplements. This can be a benefit to patients who have difficulty taking pills or who simply don’t want to take anything else.
While not directly related to fibromyalgia, float tanks can also have some performance benefits.
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. They found “a significant difference between the treatment and comparison groups on technical ability, but not on any other dimension.”
When float tanks are combined with positive imagery, athletic performance also improved without any other adjustments to amount or duration of practice. Simply floating in the tank and allowing the body and mind to fully relax seems to be what athletes need to recharge and regroup.
Float tank testimonials from fibromyalgia patients
The Fibromyalgia Flotation Project was designed for patients and interested medical professionals to test the efficacy of flotation REST treatments for fibromyalgia specifically. Two patients in particular are highlighted on their website.
Tina suffered from pain and bruising as a lasting reminder of a car accident in 1998 but couldn’t figure out why she was still in so much pain. Doctors attempted to control her pain with prescription opioids and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), with disastrous results. After nearly overdosing, she finally tried flotation REST while visiting friends.
Tina describes her first experience in the tank like this:
“[It was] like stepping into a warmth that was hard to describe. I felt held, secure, safe, enveloped and surrounded by this wonderful water that was so good to feel against my painful body. I had immediate pain relief and no breakthrough pain for 17 hours after my first float.”
After seven floats, Tina puts her pain level at just 10% of what it used to be.
Float tanks improve overall quality of life
Brigitta’s fibromyalgia was not traced to any one particular incident, but the pain and dizziness made it difficult for her to really function effectively. She was unable to take pain medications because of their side effects, so she utilized acupuncture, warm baths, and exercise.
She was recruited by the Fibromyalgia Flotation Project at 70 years old and had this to say about the results:
“Flotation has made my life considerably better. I feel that it’s easier for me to take each day as it comes, which means that life gets easier. I feel much more positive and happy, and many of my friends confirm that.”
Frequently asked questions about float tanks
For first-time floaters, float tanks may be intimidating. The space is enclosed, and the act of floating is a foreign one. Some frequently asked questions about float tanks for fibromyalgia include the following.
What should I expect during my session?
People who utilize float tanks are often referred to as “floaters.” Floaters shower before entering the tank, either floating unclothed or in a bathing suit. Float sessions can last anywhere from 30 to 90 minutes.
First-time floaters may need some time to adjust to the environment of the tank, so a session of at least one hour is recommended.
Are fibromyalgia float tanks hygienic?
The water in the float tanks is saturated with magnesium sulfate nearly to the point of crystallization, just like the Dead Sea. And, just like the Dead Sea, this is not an environment in which bacteria can live.
In addition, float tanks come with a filter system that automatically filters the water after each session. Finally, floaters are asked to shower before they enter the tank, further minimizing the amount of bacteria or dirt they introduce to the tank.
Is there anyone who shouldn’t float?
Because a float tank is small and enclosed, floating may be difficult for people with claustrophobia. There are float tanks that have small windows that may help with this, but for some that might not be enough room. Those who suffer from anxiety may also find the initial sessions difficult.
How many sessions are required?
There is no perfect number of sessions, but for first-time floaters it is best to schedule a series. The sensations experienced in the tank (e.g., deep relaxation, minimal sensory input, weightlessness) may be strange and take some getting used to.
Be Free Floating recommends starting with a series of three, offering a reduced price for first-time floaters. Ultimately it is up to the floater to decide what works best for them.
Learn more about fibromyalgia
Fibromyalgia is diagnosed by the presence of pain in 18 specific tender points in the body. This pain can be accompanied by deep fatigue and poor focus or concentration. Many fibromyalgia patients also suffer from mental disorders such as depression and anxiety, both of which can exacerbate pain. The following video goes over some of the basics of fibromyalgia, along with treatments that work for patients.
Other conservative fibromyalgia treatments include massage therapy or diet changes. If you’ve tried float tanks for fibromyalgia or other more conservative treatments but haven’t found relief, it may be time to talk to a pain doctor. You can find a certified pain management doctor in your area by clicking the button below.