Float therapy is a relatively new wellness trend which claims to provide significant physical and mental health benefits. While different wellness centers offer different types of float therapy treatments, most of them involve sensory deprivation and a whole-body soak in water treated with Epsom salts.
In this article we’ll review the medical research on float therapy to determine if it actually has proven benefits, if it’s a waste of time and money, and if there are superior alternatives.
Medical Study Review
Surprisingly, there are a decent number of preliminary studies on floatation therapy published in medical journals.
A 2018 study published in the PLOS ONE journal examined whether float therapy could reduce anxiety and depression in one single one-hour session. The study was funded by a non-profit organization so it was free of any funding bias.
The results were impressive. On average, float therapy significantly reduced anxiety and improved mood, with negligible side effects.
A clinical trial of longer duration found similar results: stress, depression and pain were significantly decreased in the float group, while general optimism and sleep quality improved. This study took place over the course of 7 weeks, and included 12 individual float sessions.
A third study tested the effectiveness of float therapy for a group of 25 patients diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD). The float therapy group experienced a significant decrease in anxiety symptoms on average compared with a control group, and 37% of the float therapy participants experienced full remission of their anxiety. These are pretty remarkable results.
The study was funded by grants from a region in Sweden, and had no funding bias.
Overall we can conclude from the medical research that float therapy is effective for reducing anxiety and depression to a clinically significant degree, at least in preliminary trials.
Due to the nature of float therapy, it’s nearly impossible to set up a placebo-controlled trial testing its effectiveness. A placebo is a medical term for an inert substance given to one group (who aren’t aware of whether they’re receiving an active or inert substance), to ensure that any results from a medical trial aren’t just psychologically-induced.
If the results of a medical study show the intervention is more effective than placebo, it’s considered to be effective. Researchers may give one medical trial group a pain pill with active ingredients, and one trial group a pill without active ingredients. Because users won’t know which is which, this type of standard medical trial can be effectively placebo-controlled.
Since float therapy is an immersive physical experience, there’s no way to “fake” it and control the placebo factor that the minds of the patients may be causing all of the beneficial effects (since patients may be expecting the therapy to work, they may experience positive mood changes for that reason alone rather than anything about the therapy causing those mood changes). This is a minor limitation of research on float therapy that makes the clinical results slightly weaker.
In the future we look forward to trials testing the effectiveness of float therapy against pharmaceutical medications, as this data would be stronger than the trials linked above.
Is Magnesium Responsible For The Benefits?
Recall that float therapy includes patients resting for an hour in a bath containing significant amounts of Epsom salts. Epsom salt is magnesium sulfate, and when it’s dissolved into a bath it absorbs into the bloodstream through the skin. This effect is proven in medical research.
Magnesium deficiency is increasing throughout the developed world as documented in medical research, and if float therapy effectively treats magnesium deficiency, this alone may be responsible for all of the benefits of the therapy.
Magnesium deficiency has been shown to cause anxiety and depression (as covered in the above-linked review), so its treatment may lead to the results seen in the float therapy studies.
This is an important consideration, because if magnesium supplementation alone is responsible for all or nearly all of the benefits, then patients could access these benefits far cheaper by using oral magnesium supplements or Epsom salts in bathwater.
We would be curious to see the results of a medical study comparing magnesium treatment alone versus float therapy.
Float Therapy Cost
One of the downsides of float therapy is that it’s relatively expensive, and very rarely covered by medical insurance. Prices vary significantly based on location, but tend to range anywhere from $40 - $150 for one single session based on our research.
This means that one weekly float therapy session could end up costing over $5,000 annually.
Float therapy is also very hard to replicate in the home, because of the large space needed, the unique sensory deprivation setup and the floor cleaning required after every session.
The high cost makes research comparing float therapy with magnesium alone even more important, because magnesium supplementation is relatively inexpensive and can be covered by medical insurance if there’s a documented need.
Oral magnesium supplements often cost less than $30 for a month’s supply, and Epsom salts can be found even cheaper.