Last week I wrote about the Fibromyalgia Flotation Project and said “fibromyalgia is not well understood at all”. This week I found interesting new research, just published in June! Here’s a quick update.
For what I believe is the first time, a physiological mechanism for fibro symptoms has been found. This is important, and not just because it means that medications for the disease can now be contemplated. Fibromyalgia has been such a mysterious condition that many doctors have thought it might be entirely in the mind, or even faked. That at least should now be disproven, and a surprising new method of diagnosis is available.
Fibromyalgia is a disorder characterized by widespread musculoskeletal pain, described as a constant dull ache, typically arising from muscles. It effects 2% of general population and women are much more likely to develop it than are men by a ratio of 9:1.
Sufferers can be chronically tired, bedridden much of the time and suffer pain that feels like body-wide bruising. It can hurt even to be touched by another person. Restful sleep is difficult. Many people who have fibromyalgia also have tension headaches, temporomandibular joint (TMJ) disorders, irritable bowel syndrome, anxiety and depression.
Fibromyalgia is not well understood at all. It can develop gradually, or have a sudden onset triggered by a traumatic event like a car accident. Its cause is not known. The best current explanation of what happens is that somehow the sufferer’s brain simply becomes more sensitive to pain (“central augmentation of pain sensitivity”), but how or why that happens is more or less anyone’s guess.
“The simple act of floating in warm salty water is the most relaxing experience on Earth.” That’s the motto of Floataway, one of the pioneers of the float industry.
A float tank, or float pod, is a small, enclosed pool usually just big enough for one person to lie down in. The water is less than a foot deep, but has so much Epsom salt dissolved in it that it’s more dense than the Dead Sea — each tank contains 800 to 1000 lbs of salt! You float effortlessly, even in such a shallow depth. Epsom salt is used to provide buoyancy, rather than normal sea salt, to avoid the itchy wrinkly pruny effect that comes with long immersion in the ocean. The high concentration of salt does sting quite sharply if it gets in your eyes or nose, but it’s easy to float with your face out of the water, and a freshwater rinse is provided to clean up if you touch your face without thinking.
The pool is heated to skin temperature, so you get neither hot nor cold, and it’s enclosed to block out as much light and sound from the outside world as possible. The roof is high enough that you can still sit up comfortably, but otherwise you are snug in the most womblike possible environment.
With the sounds of the outside world removed, you are left with your own breathing, and heartbeat, and the occasional splash if you move around.
What does this do? There are fairly profound physiological and psychological effects.
You float effortlessly, so the body is relieved of any need to balance itself against gravity or keep any tension in the limbs. You can relax completely. Also, unlike lying on a bed, none of your tissues are compressed, allowing blood to flow freely.
Epsom salt baths have a long history in spas, where they are thought to help soften skin and relieve muscle tension. Scientifically, Epsom salt is magnesium sulfate, and many people also believe that the magnesium can be absorbed through the skin. Magnesium is known to be important in a long list of critical biochemical reactions, and it is common for people to be deficient.
The float tank is designed as a reduced stimulation environment. In fact, that’s the accepted scientific term: Reduced Environmental Stimulation Technique, or REST. Inputs to the cerebral cortex are dampened or eliminated: vision, hearing, touch, proprioception, motor movement and verbal control, thermal sensation and regulation. With the noise of all that normal activity dampened, you can become much more able to hear your inner world. The sensation is somewhat like falling asleep, except that you can sustain that floating state for extended lengths of time. Some people report going so deep that they have visions, mild auditory hallucinations, and out-of-body experiences.
One way to think of it is that flotation provides the most conducive possible environment for meditation. Most people are able to access a trance state within a few sessions, sometimes even the first time, with no training or practice whatsoever.
Whether you experience any altered consciousness or not, the float tank environment is extraordinarily relaxing. Our society is suffering something of a stress epidemic, and stress is recognized as a risk factor for every leading cause of death. More than two dozen studies have shown flotation significantly reduces anxiety, eases depression, helps sleep, and decreases blood pressure. Investigation is ongoing to its use as a therapy for PTSD.
The flotation state also seems to have benefits for creativity and mental focusing. Various studies have shown improvements to memory, idea generation, competitive performance (such as target rifle shooting), and lasting behavioural changes such as losing weight or quitting smoking.
Note: this essay includes a whole lot of comments about “various studies” without links to the science. I am working through the research, and will update each topic as I get to it.
Some people have concerns that they will experience claustrophobia in a tank, but this is rare. It’s bigger than you think — big enough to sit up in easily — and you are not locked in. The door is very light, and does not even have a latch. Some people find it helpful to leave the door ajar, or fully open. That’s okay. There’s no pressure.
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