An alternative medical trend is trying to break through in Western Massachusetts. “Flotation therapy” is when a person floats in a tank of skin-temperature, highly concentrated salt water — most often in the dark. While it’s frequently promoted as a treatment for everything from insomnia to addiction, float science hasn’t caught up with the hype.
About two years ago, Lori Schott received a gift certificate to float at a spa in Southern Connecticut. She said it took her awhile to go because she knew so little about floating.
But once there, “just the weightlessness while you were in the tank — it just takes away…all the gravity’s not pulling on your body and straining your muscles and your joints,” Schott said. “I just felt like someone plugged me in and recharged me.”
So Schott purchased a membership at that spa.
“I just wanted that to last forever,” she said.
But the two-hour drive was soon too much. So Schott decided to open a float spa in her community. Euphoria Float Spa in Northampton opened in early 2016, with two rooms for floating and one for skin care.
The spa charges $65 for an hour and offers discounts to students, veterans and repeat customers. Repeat customers like Steven Tomadakis, who floats weekly, he said, to deal with stress from work.
“I deal with a lot of different departments and individuals — personalities,” Tomadakis said. “And I…found it as a therapy I could use to help alleviate a lot of that. And, it’s been effective.”
Another faithful Euphoria Spa customer is Alan Bachers, who said he began floating in the 1970s as part of a research project on the stress benefits of floating. For him, floating’s not just about relaxing. He said it alters his state of mind.
“The flotation dissolves boundaries, physiologically,” Bachers said. “So that there’s like no boundary between my consciousness and, well, the universe.”
The high concentration of salt in the water provides buoyancy. And the float tanks are dim or dark, with little or no sound. This reduced stimulation has been found in peer-reviewed studies to make people more relaxed, and often, induce meditative mind states.
Ellen Slawsby is a clinical psychologist and director of the pain management program at The Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital. She recommends floating to some of her patients.
“It has been shown to be helpful with chronic pain and anxiety, some mood issues,” Slawsby said. “So, there is research coming out more and more.”
The pain and stress benefits are well-supported by research. Floating has also been shown to help with low-level depression and anxiety. But Euphoria and other float spas advertise additional benefits, such as help for addiction and increasing mood-enhancing chemicals like endorphins and dopamine.
“To my knowledge, I know of no study that would indicate increased dopamine,” said Kristoffer Jonsson, who studies flotation therapy at Karlstad University in Sweden.
Jonsson’s team has looked at how floating is advertised, compared to what’s backed up by science. And, they’ve found inconsistencies.
“Maybe the information regarding the benefits of flotation is a bit exaggerated,” Jonsson said. “And also, if one study has been conducted, it could be maybe small and have some scientific flaws, and that information was taken and stated as fact.”
Jonsson said he feels that flotation therapy has potential, and he’s eager to find its place in the health care system.
But, “it’s a lot of research needed, still,” he said. “I mean, we need more randomized, controlled trials, to see if it works.”
There’s another reason why that’s needed. The benefits of floating often take weeks of sessions to achieve. And floating isn’t currently covered by insurance companies in the United States, and only in limited areas of Sweden. So the out-of-pocket cost may price many people out of the tank.