What’s In Float Tanks And Why Is It Beneficial?

//What’s In Float Tanks And Why Is It Beneficial?

What’s In Float Tanks And Why Is It Beneficial?

Float tanks have been around since flotation REST (reduced environmental stimuli therapy) was developed in the 1950s by John C. Lilly, M.D. Also known as sensory deprivation tanks or isolation tanks, this therapy uses a water-filled tank that is approximately the size of a bed and is heated to skin temperature. The therapeutic benefits are many, not just because of the tank itself but also because of what’s in the water.

The idea behind float tanks is very simple. Patients don a bathing suit or other appropriate attire and then enter a pod-like, water-filled tank. The water in the tank is heated to skin temperature, around 91 degrees, so that the water is barely noticeable on the skin. This allows the patient to relax fully without the sensory stimulation of something touching their skin.

In addition to the light touch of the water, the room in which the float tank is located is dimly lit, and some patients may wear eye masks to further block the light. The resulting sensation is that of being in a cocoon, or even of returning to a womb-like environment.

What’s in the water?

The water in a float tank is a crucial part of the therapy. Float tanks include Epsom salts (magnesium sulfate) in near-saturation amounts, usually with a relative density of 1.25. Lilly initially recommended aiming for a relative density of 1.3, but at this level recrystallization is possible. A relative density of 1.25 is the same as the level of salt in the Dead Sea.

The goal for this amount of magnesium sulfate is twofold:

  • Floatation: One of the goals of float tanks is for the patient to be able to fully relax and let go of all effort. The high relative density of the float tank completely supports a patient and allows them to easily keep their mouth and nose above the surface with zero muscular effort. Initially it may be difficult for patients to let go fully, but as they spend more time in the tank, they will begin to see that they can truly relax and be supported by the water.
  • Therapeutics: People in the U.S. are chronically magnesium deficient. Magnesium sulfate is an often-ignored mineral that contributes to over 300 different functions in the body, including maintaining heart health. Many symptoms of magnesium deficiency are similar to chronic pain symptoms and can include muscle aches, insomnia, migraines, chronic fatigue, and fibromyalgia. Transdermal (across the skin) magnesium therapy is an excellent way to address these symptoms. Many people take Epsom salts baths to relax and unwind tired muscles. Float tanks offer the opportunity to do the same thing with the added benefit of complete muscle relaxation at the same time.

While the ability to float and relax is an important part of float tank therapy, the magnesium is arguably the most important part of the treatment. Because magnesium is so crucial to the functioning of the entire body, low levels of this mineral can lead to serious, systemic issues, including:

  • Type 2 diabetes: Researchers looked at 13 cohort studies with 536,318 participants reporting 24,516 cases of diabetes and found a significant inverse association between magnesium levels and Type 2 diabetes. In other words, where magnesium intake was up, incidence of Type 2 diabetes went down.
  • Cardiovascular disease: In a similar meta-analysis of 16 studies and 313,041 individuals, researchers found that magnesium intake was also inversely associated with the risk of cardiovascular disease. Low magnesium is also the number one predictor of heart disease, even above cholesterol and saturated fat intake.
  • Stroke: The results of seven studies with 241,378 participants and 6,477 cases of stroke found that an increase in magnesium brought about a small but statistically significant decrease in the risk of stroke.
  • Cancer: In eight studies, increased magnesium helped bring about a modest decrease in the risk of colon cancer, but other studies have shown that more magnesium reduces cancer risk significantly.

Benefits of float tanks

Combining complete relaxation, magnesium, skin temperature water, and the darkness in the room and the tank can offer profound relief from stress, anxiety, depression, and chronic pain.

For pain management specifically, Float Sanctuary lists 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.

Float tanks are clearly indicated as a complementary treatment for pain, but they also have some surprising benefits. Jazz musicians who floated for one hour each week for a month demonstrated better technical ability at the end of the study without any changes to practice schedule, intensity, or duration. Float tanks combined with positive mental imagery improved the long-term skills of college athletes. Pregnant women who float may also see relief of late-pregnancy aches and pains, experiencing more restful sleep to help them better prepare for labor and delivery.

Associations with float tanks are not all positive. Sensory deprivation of the type experienced in float tanks has been used as torture at various times in history, with a key difference being that the patient is able to exit the float tank at any time. People with claustrophobia or anxiety may also have difficulty with the small space of the float tank.

For those who are able, the soothing water of the float tank may offer profound and long-lasting relief from a number of different pain conditions and mood disorders.

Would you try a float tank?


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By | 2016-11-17T10:23:00-07:00 February 8th, 2016|Tags: , , |11 Comments

About the Author:

Pain Doctor
Pain Doctor was created with one mission in mind: help and educate people about their pain conditions, treatment options and find a doctor who can help end their pain issues.


  1. Avatar
    Michelle March 20, 2016 at 9:37 am

    Actually, in regards to claustrophobia, the “floater” is in total control of the float tank door and can choose to float with it totally or partially open. In 7 years of running this type of business and thousands of clients, I have not had anyone not be able to float because of claustrophobia. Most who claim beforehand to be claustrophobic choose to close the door. The average person is able to stretch their arm completely upward in all the tanks that are manufactured today through the world.

    • Pain Doctor
      Pain Doctor March 22, 2016 at 12:32 pm

      Hi Michelle — thanks for your comment! We agree that the large majority of patients will have no issues with this. It’s great to hear how many people you’ve been able to help!

  2. Avatar
    Tracy March 25, 2016 at 5:59 pm

    Where can you find these types of float tanks?

    • Pain Doctor
      Pain Doctor April 8, 2016 at 7:12 pm

      Hi Tracy — It depends on your area. We recommend asking your pain doctor or Googling “float tanks” and your city name.

  3. Avatar
    Mrecoy December 3, 2016 at 9:36 am

    How does body stay in a float position without turning or sinking

    • Pain Doctor
      Pain Doctor December 6, 2016 at 1:17 pm

      Hi Mrecoy — you can visit the float page location pages for more information. Simply, the mixture and density of the salt in the water allows people to stay buoyant. Thanks for stopping by!

  4. Avatar
    Jen March 3, 2017 at 11:28 pm

    I’m a bit ‘late to the party’ here, but to answer Tracey’s question – there’s a good website called ‘floatationlocations’ that has a pretty comprehensive list of float center locations around the world. Hope this helps 🙂

    • Pain Doctor
      Pain Doctor March 7, 2017 at 3:22 pm

      Thanks for your suggestion Jen!

  5. Avatar
    Callum Palmer March 13, 2018 at 7:00 pm

    Wow, I had no idea that the addition of Magnesium to the water you float in could have so many benefits. Although, a large part of that, is that I had no idea Magnesium could be used to fight so many diseases. I might have to give this a shot, especially if the extra Magnesium can help with some of my minor heart problems.

  6. Avatar
    K Butler October 27, 2018 at 8:03 pm

    What a well written article! I have an appt tomorrow for an hour session in a float tank. I am hoping for shoulder impingement relief and spinal decompression, I’ve also read that the float can help with trigger points. I have some expectations of feeling better afterward, it may not be a cure if I do 50sessions, still, I hope to benefit someway.

    • Pain Doctor
      Pain Doctor October 29, 2018 at 12:43 pm

      Thanks for your feedback!

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