Healing and Pain Relief Alternatives: Flotation Therapy
For two decades as a chiropractic sports physician, I helped pros and weekend warriors overcome pain and optimize performance. I began practice just as the opioid crisis was invisibly taking hold of society. This was a time when big pharma and big insurance paid bills for pills and left alternative medicine by the wayside. It was hard to find–or get medical practitioners to recommend–mainstream alternatives. Only in more recent years have viable and effective alternative therapies, such as acupuncture or floating, have become more commonplace for both physical and mental health. Float therapy or floatation, once known as sensory deprivation, is one of these alternatives.
At an ironic crossroads well into my career, my own physical body broke down from multiple disc herniations and spinal degeneration for which neurosurgery was indicated. This was punctuated by a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis at the end of 2013. This accelerated my ever-evolving pursuit of new and effective tools to manage pain and dysfunction. Float tanks found their way into my world and I discovered one of my most successful pathways for managing stress, pain and sleep, in over 20 years of clinical practice. In fact, I never did get surgery. But I did get a float tank for my home.
I was suffering with chronic pain and nervous system dysfunction, to the point where some days I was barely able to walk, speak coherently, be awake for more than 3 hours or be freaked out by total body numbness. As a pain specialist, I experienced firsthand how physical and emotional pain are inseparable. The short-circuiting of my brain and nervous system through my MS magnified both my pain and my emotional state. Managing stress and anxiety became problematic, Sleep became a major issue. I experienced a pain map on my body that over time, took up more and more real estate and head space. Pain was fatiguing. Pain was frustrating. Pain was limiting.
When I first got my home float tank, I floated A LOT. And I realized that more was not necessarily better. Floating daily drained me. It was too detoxifying and dehydrating (also assuming that I was not drinking nearly enough water at the time). I found that certain times of the day were best, usually around noon, which was my low point energetically. It was also the time when I began to feel most physically spent. I always emerged from the float experience in an energized, calm and focused state. I walked into the float hunched over and depressed, then floated and emerged more mobile and emotionally bright. After floating I had a window of opportunity to partake in mental and physical heavy lifting in the afternoon and for days afterwards.
I found that after a float I was very creative. Ideas flowed easily, when only an hour before, I had looping, unfocused thoughts. Floating allowed me to write and to get my clinical work done. It allowed me to continue to practice chiropractic and acupuncture and to help others, until the self-reflection of floating became too obvious and the realization hit that I needed to change the stress/work/sleep/self-love dynamic. So, I opened a float center, The Float Zone, and this has allowed me to see even more clearly the value and benefits of float therapy.
Chronic pain keeps the brain in a constant “fight or flight” state. This impedes the ability to manage stress. Chronic pain increases cortisol production, inflammation, increases adrenaline, depletes the immune system, affects oxygen and blood flow to muscles. Injuries take longer to heal. Molehills seem like mountains. All this was true for me.
I saw that the more regularly I floated, my pain was less intense and less frequent.
More than anything, floating served as a deep brain reset. With the instant and deep state of relaxation by floating effortlessly in skin temperature water (94 degrees), it allows the brain to rest and to communicate with other parts of the brain that cannot take place during a normal waking state. The body also absorbs Magnesium because of the Epsom Salt in the float tank (Epsom Salt is MG+SO4). Magnesium is a commonly deficient mineral that has many important bodily uses, including muscle relaxation and controlling inflammation – hence good for recovery and pain management. I was not only able to prepare better for exercise, but able to recover from the effects of it.
Shortly after the opening of The Float Zone, I began doing clinical case studies on the benefits of floating for various conditions. The first floatation studies centered on concussion and traumatic brain injury. I watched and tracked floaters with brain injury over the course of months while brain and body effects were transformed. Sleep was improved. Vision and auditory hypersensitivity were reduced. Muddled thinking became clear. Productivity and energy increased. Pain decreased.
These studies led to several chronic pain studies including low back, neck and headaches.
I tracked many of the same parameters: Intensity and frequency of pain, stress, anxiety, depression, sleep, daily energy, productivity. All increased significantly in short order.
Positive effects lasted.
I went on to study autoimmune diseases such as Multiple Sclerosis, Ehlers Danlos syndrome. The same factors improved. Sleep. Stress, Anxiety. Energy. Pain. Then a study on Autism and floating. Same. Then one on opioid recovery and floating. Same results.
Needless to say, floating has been a game-changer for me and for many others. By offering that purposeful pause, that modern day, “anxiety society” life hack, float therapy has given me new hope that my MS and my chronic pain can be managed. Floating has given me more reason to help others and to provide a service that only enhances the wellness spectrum.
To find out more about flotation therapy, read about Cherie’s experience in her article Adventures in Wellness: The Joy of Floating.