I'm an accredited journalist working at the intersections of science, food and public health. I am also a certified nutritionist.
Which benefits of floatation are backed by research, and which are still anecdotal? Let’s explore the basis for the effects of float tanks on different health conditions and related authorized health claims.
There are multiple competing theories as to how float tanks work to achieve the anxiety-reducing experience and meditative recharge they are touted to produce. Maybe it is just from the Epsom salts, maybe it is the sensory deprivation or a change in brainwave function—or maybe a combination of the above.
What Do We Know About Float Tanks?
But what do we really know about the scientific benefits of sensory deprivation tanks?
With the rise in interest in floating and media input from so-called experts who have not studied the science of sensory deprivation tanks, we should be cautious in what we claim floatation tanks can do in advertising and public relations—especially when writing on a manufacturer’s website or in brochures.
The reason for this is three-fold. First, there is a risk of misleading people who don’t experience the effects that a float tank operator tells them they should (false advertising). Second, we don’t know what floatation can and cannot accomplish on a consistent basis. And third, some of the claims being made in the media are assertions verging on medical advice. Giving medical advice without a stable, solid research foundation is opening oneself up to legal problems.
So Who Should We Listen to When It Comes to Floating?
Dr. Peter Suedfeld, one of the seminal researchers on floatation tanks, has come up with some guidelines about safe and riskier floatation tank health claims. Suedfeld categorizes claims in four different categories based on the strength of the research: what we know, what we may know, what we don’t know, and what we don’t know, we don’t know.
Accordingly, float tank manufacturers should emphasize in their advertising the “what we know” items, which refer to results from rigorous controlled studies and reliable quantitative data. They should identify as tentative the “what we may know” items, which include indications with some data that are insufficient for firm claims or conclusions.
What About What We Don't Know?
The last two categories should be avoided. This means manufacturers can’t talk about “what we don’t know” items—in other words, extrapolations from anecdotes, self-reports and observations. Nor can they mention “what we don’t know we don’t know” items with applications that have never been tested.
There are floatation tank benefits that we hear often but have no scientific basis—for example, that two hours in the float tank equals eight hours of sleep. If only! Or that transdermal magnesium absorption is readily occurring during float sessions. And while a lot of anecdotal evidence exists for floatation’s use in addiction treatment and withdrawal from opioids, it has not yet been proven that it helps, though other forms of restricted environmental stimulation therapy (REST)—like dry REST or chamber REST—do.
The state-of-the-art research in this field has been looking at many small-scale studies with fewer than a hundred participants. And so, sometimes the available data is really about a single float session, not about the long-lasting effects of multiple floats—within clinical populations, too, so not on average people.
Researchers seem to agree that although the results of float therapy are quite interesting, they are not very solid yet and lack replication. There are, however, some areas in which there is enough research that we can draw reliable conclusions.
What We Know About Floating and Sensory Deprivation Tanks
Some of the founding figures of floating REST are Tom Fine, Dr. Justin Feinstein, and Dr. Anette Kjellgren. They have all contributed a great deal to the field by studying a range of effects, from pain management to mental health and sports performance.
They have found that the effect that several studies are backing up is prolonged stress relief, or simply increased relaxation, by the lowering of stress hormones and the release of endorphins. This occurs across many of both the smaller studies and the larger studies, as well as Feinstein’s most recent studies.
Pain reduction comes second as another claim that can be made safely, at least in connection with certain disorders. These include both chronic pain conditions from various sources (stress, tension, rheumatoid arthritis, accidents) and acute pain, like delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS), according to Fine’s research and that of Swedish scientists.
In terms of mental health, there are positive benefits found in Feinstein’s current work. There is evidence that floatation helps people with panic disorder, social anxiety disorder, agoraphobia, generalized anxiety disorder and depression, no matter their specific triggers. PTSD pilot studies are underway.
Floating seems particularly beneficial for improving performance across different sports, creating greater muscle range, tone and control. This is most evident in swimmers, although further studies are being conducted at places like Ohio State University in collaboration with the Air Force’s research lab and collegiate athletic groups to track performance before and after floating as part of athletes’ training.
Our level of understanding of the mechanisms underpinning the benefits of floating may be increasing, but it is still too early to call it a treatment. This terminology should be avoided due to the lack of longitudinal studies following people with a regular float practice over the course of years to establish whether the effects carry into day-to-day life.
In addition, future studies should focus on the proper control conditions needed to show that the effects are attributable to the float intervention rather than to a placebo.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.
© 2022 Camille Bienvenu