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Float pods for physical therapy: What does 'sensory reduction' feel like?

Inspired by the role floating played in reducing his pain, Thomas opened up the Soak Float Center in Salem in August 2016.

SALEM, Ore. - Joe Thomas suffered a motorcycle racing accident in June 2015.

“My body was thrown into a fence pole,” Thomas says. “It basically broke my neck and back, my shoulders, eight ribs. Three of my ribs separated and shredded my lungs.”

After multiple surgeries, he found prescription pain medications were ineffective.

Thomas searched for another form of relief.

“I got lucky that a friend of mine told me about floating,” Thomas says. “I went and tried it, and when I got home I slept for the first time in two months all the way through the night. Without any pain.”

Floating is a unique experience. It’s the practice of entering a warm, lightless pod—or tank—filled with 10 inches of water. Each take has over 1,000 pounds of medical grade Epsom salt, which is nine times saltier than the ocean. Such a high salinity allows a person to float effortlessly.

“By being in that environment, it allows you to not have stimuli. So the brain and the body, for the first time, gets a chance to fully relax and decompress," Thomas says.

Inspired by the role floating played in reducing his pain, Thomas opened up the Soak Float Center in Salem in August 2016.

“By being in that environment, it allows you to not have stimuli," Thomas says. "So the brain and the body, for the first time, gets a chance to fully relax and decompress.”

Convinced floating was the source of his respite, Thomas floated as often as he could during his recovery.

“It was a game changer for me. It helped me recover way faster,” he says. “I incorporated that into my physical therapy routine, and yeah it sped the whole thing up.”

Now, two years later, Thomas feels he’s beyond the pain of his accident.

He now hopes to bring others the same relief.

“I figured if there is a chance that I can share this with somebody else, I mean it really saved me. It turned my life around. It gave me hope,” Thomas says.

What is it like?

I was given the opportunity to experience floating myself at Thomas’ spa. Which began with the signing of a waiver, and a rundown of the process from an attendant.

At Soak Float Center, each session is 90 minutes long and cost $65.

Package deals exist for frequent floaters which lower the price of each session by a few bucks.

The spa itself was quiet, clean and relaxing.

After being offered a cup of tea, and taking a recommended trip to the bathroom, I was provided with one of six rooms available. Each was private with a lock on the door, a shower, and either a float cabin or float pod.

I chose a room with a cabin, which is wider and taller than the space-age looking pods. Tall enough to stand up in if I wished.

Before getting into the tank, I removed all clothing — floating is done in the nude — and took a required shower. A shower is necessary to remove unwanted oils and makeup from the body, which helps keep the water and tank clean. Ear plugs were provided to help reduce sound while floating, but also to keep the highly salted water out of my ears.

Vaseline was also available, to cover any exposed cuts or scratches. I passed on applying any, unaware of all the small nicks and cuts I have in odd spots. The extremely salty water made me immediately aware of each one once I laid down. Fortunately, the stings faded after a few minutes. And I imagine the Epsom salt, a natural antiseptic, helped heal my cuts much faster than if I’d not floated.

Wakeful Dreaming

As advertised, the floating was effortless. I bobbed on the top of the water like a cork. Occasionally bumping into the wall of the cabin, not really knowing how I was positioned in the tank. Eventually, I became accustomed to the environment and found all I had left to experience was … nothing.

I was alone with the sound of my breathing, the pumping of my heart, and the buzz of my brain were with me in the darkness.

My thoughts were loud, and my problems hovered in the front of my head. I wondered how long I had been floating already. If I would need to step out to the tank and visit the restroom, remembering the tea I just drank. I thought about how I would write this very story, and what details were important to make note of.

Thomas explained this is normal.

Just like getting into bed at night, our brains tend to fire off random thoughts and ideas.

“Soon you start to notice your breathing slowing down,” Thomas says. “You’ll hear your heart beat louder as everything comes down to a minimal state of restfulness. That’s where you pretty much start shutting the brain down and start relaxing.”

That was my experience. At some point, I wasn’t thinking about anything other than listening to my breathing. I reached a point where I didn’t know if my eyes were opened or closed. And oddly, I began to dream.

But I wasn’t asleep.

The whole time I remember being awake and aware I was floating in saltwater tank, though I certainly was experiencing dreams.

This state of wakeful dreaming is often referred to as lucid dreaming by psychologists. It can also be achieved, with practice, through meditation.

“I kind of look at [floating] as a cheaters way of meditation,” says Thomas after hearing me describe of my lucid dreams experience, as well as my admission that I do not practice meditation.

“Your brain is always dealing with information, and it works at a frequency we can measure,” he says. “When you get into doing a float, before you enter the REM—which is a deep sleep—you’re in the stages of theta state. Which is what allows you to release the endorphins and feel good, and put you at ease.”

Lucid Dreaming

A 2009 study published in the scientific journal of Sleep examined the brain frequency of participants experiencing a lucid dream.

Their conclusions confirm that a lucid dreamer’s brain exists in a “hybrid” form of consciousness and unconsciousness. A half way point between sleeping and wakefulness. This is often referred to as the “Theta State” based on the frequencies a brain produces when in this state.

Research into theta state and its effect of the mind and body is limited. But many people, like Thomas, as well as some sensory reduction researchers, believe this brain-state is what creates an expanding sense of relaxation. Not only during a float, but in days that follow.

For Thomas, finding time in theta state helps him manage stress and anxiety.

“I float probably once a week,” he says. “I now use it not only for the physical side of it, but also the stresses of owning a business and day to day life.”

Other research has been done beyond the mental effects of floating—specifically on the body and its management of pain.

According to the American Chronic Pain Association, chronic pain is the largest cause of disability in the United States. A study published in 2015 in The Journal of Pain, estimates 25 million adults experience chronic pain daily. An additional 23 million more suffer from severe pain.

Floating, for many like Thomas, has provided a form of relief from pain.

“The experience that I went through with floating,” he says, “for the first time I actually got to have a break from my pain.

In 2005, a study published in the Journal of Pain Research and Management concluded that, “flotation therapy is an effective, noninvasive method for treating stress-related pain.”

Another study in 2001, also from the Journal of Pain Research and Management says floating, “may offer an effective method of alleviating low to moderately severe pain induced by muscle tension.”

When my 90 minutes was over, a soft light and quiet zen-like music filled my cabin, calmly telling me it was time to get up. Getting out of the tank was a touch disorienting, as my muscles were weak from over an hour of no tension.

Next was another shower. This time to get the saltwater out of my hair and off my body. Lotion was avaiable, and needed, to moisten my skin. I didn't immediately notice any differences in my mood, emotions, or body. It was only during my drive home I realized any muscle soreness from a week of CrossFit was gone. And when I got into bed that night I discovered a persistent knot by my left shoulder blade—which I haven’t been able to get rid of for months— had disappeared (Though I’ll note that same knot, unfortunately, returned about a week and a half after my float).

“I hear it all the time from customers,” says Thomas when talking what he's seen from people who have floated for the first time. “Some people come in that have really bad arthritis. They’re surprised how much the inflammation went down, and how well they were able to move their hands.”

These common experiences has cause floating to grow rapidly over the last few years. In 2010 only three float spas existed in Oregon. Currently there are 12.

Most are located near Portland., although Bend, Salem, Eugene, and Vida each have a business specializing in float therapy, or at least access to a float tank.

Thomas hopes to tap into the public’s building interest, believing it can help anyone. Which remains his biggest motivation for opening his own floatation spa. “That’s rewarding to me, and that’s why I did this,” he says.

As for myself, floating is something I’ll remember when I need to step away from the world, and relax.

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