Treatment Series: The Float Tank

Some of y’all might find the following story a little cuckoo. And that’s okay. I understand that climbing into a sensory deprivation tank for 90 minutes might not be everyone’s cup of tea. I’m a skeptic by nature (and by nurture) but figured that visiting a floatation tank would be worth my time, especially because there are no significant risks. Why not, right?

Here’s the scoop. I was in Portland, Oregon in January to visit the city and spend time with my dear friend K., who was a college roommate in New York City over a decade ago (yikes—where’d the time go?). She told me about a place in the city where you could “float,” and she sold me on it. I booked a session for later that week.

I’d just left Seattle after a bookselling conference, and, as much as I was loving the Pacific Northwest, I wasn’t feeling my best. Every time I fly, I run the risk of getting a migraine due to the altitude (a trigger for many). Factor in the long hours of the conference, the time change from East Coast to West Coast, and the general stress of travel (even though I love it), and the typically humid, gray skies of the region, and you have a recipe for migraine. I felt pretty crappy for a few days but did my best to rally and explore the cities I visited.

The day of my float, I woke up with a horrible migraine. There went my plans of grabbing breakfast and taking a bus to the floatation place. I lolled on the couch until my medication set in and ate a light breakfast (a full two hours before floating, per the company’s instructions). Happily, my migraine lifted fully as I walked to the spa where I would float. I was sleepy and a little out of it (typical for me when it comes to the postdrome) and arrived at the spa just in time.

Here’s what it was like. I was shown into a private room where there was a stand-up shower next to a large rectangular-prism-style tank. The tank was probably about eight feet long and three or four feet wide. It was half-full with extremely salty water—the tanks contain enough salt so that you are floating almost on top of the water. (In fact, the water is very close to its salination point, meaning if any more salt were added, I would be immersed in clumps of wet salt!)

I took a shower in the stall, using oil-free, unscented soap that was provided. Then (yes, without clothes on) I stepped into the tank. The water in a float tank is less than a foot deep. I scooched in until I was sitting in the tank, my legs fully extended in front of me. I took a deep breath, closed the lightweight door through which I came, and lay down in the water. It was pitch black.

The water in a float tank is kept at skin temperature—this allows you to soon not realize where the air on top of your body stops and the water under you starts. It’s fascinating. Because you are equally supported from above and below, there’s no pressure on any joint, bone, or muscle in your body. I was able to put my arms above me, resting gently next to my head. This is a position that’s uncomfortable for me when I lie in bed, but it was blissful in the tank. I took deep breaths and tried to just be aware of my body. My neck and back, which always hurt a little bit, felt so comfortable I was able to become unaware of them completely.

When you are in pitch blackness, your brain starts to hallucinate a little bit (nothing scary!), and I started seeing gorgeous colors like fireworks whether my eyes were open or closed. I eventually drifted into that strange phase you enter shortly before you really fall asleep, when you’re still aware of yourself but are dreaming at the same time. I stayed in that phase for awhile.

The first time I wondered how long it had been already, I thought, “Wow. This is cool, but I’m supposed to be here for 90 minutes? I’m guessing it’s been about twenty so far.” Right as I was sure that no more than 20 or 25 minutes had passed, I started to hear the quiet music they pipe in to make you aware that your float time is coming to a close. “No way,” I thought. “No way have 90 minutes passed.”

I took my time getting out of the tank. I took a warm shower, washing my hair and skin twice to get rid of all the salt. I dried off and looked at my watch, which was sitting on the counter. Surely enough, it had been two hours since I arrived. I was completely shocked. It was rare, if not unprecedented, for me to lose track of time while not working on a project of some kind. I was just totally alone, and it was great.

In the past, we have had articles on mindfulness meditation here on Migraine.com. I feel like floating could correspond well with these articles. To surrender yourself to a stimulus-free environment is fascinating and extremely relaxing (for me, at least). I’m not sure there’s any research on floating and migraine, but I’d venture to guess that the migraine brain, so used to feeling attacked by stimuli, would bask in a sensory-free environment for a couple of hours.

I left feeling more calm. My body felt the way it does after a really great massage or a fabulously relaxing yoga class—I was energetic but calm, and my muscles hummed and I was pain-free.

Floating enthusiasts claim that regular floating can significantly improve chronic pain conditions, enhance the creative process, and more. There’s no float tank where I live, so I can’t see for myself how multiple floats affect my physical and emotional health, especially as far as migraine goes, but if you have some cash and the curiosity, I’d encourage you to give it a shot.

Have you ever floated? What was it like for you? Did it have any affect on your migraine or other chronic pain conditions?

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The Migraine.com team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

Comments

View Comments (6)
  • Katie M. Golden moderator
    5 years ago

    Janet,
    Because of your post, I sought out a Float Tank when I was out of town. It was a great experience! I felt as relaxed afterwards as I do when I get a deep tissue massage.

    I’m not sure that I would completely replace my valued massages for the Float Tank, but it was a great break from the normal. And it cost about the same.

    I agree that there are some healing properties found in saltwater as Johnnyk said. Going to the beach calms me tremendously and the Float Tank can be a good substitute!

    Thanks Janet for the recommendation!
    -Katie

  • johnnyk
    5 years ago

    When I was younger I discovered that walking along the beach (on the coast) for 20-30 minutes and breathing in the salty air would alleviate a migraine. I wonder what role salt may play as an abortive . . .

  • Adamsgran726
    5 years ago

    Sounds heavenly! I doubt that there’s a facility near me. Maybe now I have the perfect excuse for a backyard pool!

  • BayouTigress
    5 years ago

    Thanks so much for this article! I have done a little research and there is a facility relatively close to me. So in the next couple of weeks I plan on making an appointment to try this out.

  • Angiestl
    5 years ago

    This sounds amazing, and I’m trying to figure out a way to replicate the idea at home, since I live in a pretty rural area that’s not much into any kind of alternative medicine or treatments. I’d think the complete quiet might bother me since I have some pretty annoying tinnitus constantly. Plus in the tank that you described, my claustrophobia might kick in before the nothingness took my mind away. It might seem like I wouldn’t be willing to try, but I definitely would. Oblivion is a place I search for every day, oblivion from the tinnitus and the pain. Chronic pain is my constant companion, but the idea of no pressure on my joints sounds delightful. Thank you for sharing your experience, and to the other commenter, Jamie. Both your experiences have made me decide to look for some way to find this peace. (As long as it’s nice clean water that I can see through lol! No ponds or rivers for me to try this out in!!)

  • arobe1002
    1 year ago

    I’m going to try this over the next couple of days if I can find time. I’m going to physical therapy tonight for my 10 day migraine and I also got a float package for a local place to try it out. I just found out that they do massages AND infrared treatments as well. It may be my new favorite place.

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