Have you always wondered how weighted blankets work and what they do? Are you curious if one might work for you or your child? If you or a loved one suffers from a sensory processing disorder like anxiety, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or Asperger’s syndrome, a weighted blanket may be the non-drug therapy you’ve been looking for.
Weighted blankets may also help people with anxiety and insomnia experience more restorative sleep. For those with fibromyalgia, using a weighted blanket may ease pain and alleviate depression. We explain how weighted blankets can boost the happiness hormone, induce more restful sleep and help ease anxiety.
5 Reasons Why You Should Use a Weighted Blanket
If you have a sensory processing disorder or a related condition like ADHD or Asperger’s syndrome, or you’re the parent of a child with an autism spectrum disorder, you’ve probably already heard of weighted blankets. Over the years, weighted blankets have become an increasingly popular tool among occupational therapists and medical professionals who treat sensory disorders.
According to WebMD, a sensory processing disorder “is a condition in which the brain has trouble receiving and responding to information that comes in through the senses.” Sensory processing disorders can range from mild to severe. The Child Mind Institute notes that sensory processing disorders can affect a person’s proprioception — their sense of body awareness — as well as their vestibular senses, “which involves movement, balance, and coordination.”
In some people, sensory processing disorder presents as hypersensitivity, which can cause them to feel overwhelmed by things like loud noises, touching or bright lights. Individuals who are hypersensitive may also seem clumsy or unable to accurately gauge the amount of force necessary to achieve a task. For example, they may slam a door when trying to close it or press too hard while writing with a pen or pencil.
Other people with sensory processing disorder are hypersensitive, which means they sometimes struggle to experience adequate stimulation. Rather than feel overwhelmed by noise, light or contact, they may seek it out. For example, they might enjoy bumping or crashing into objects. Others who are hypersensitive intentionally seek out hugs and cuddling — even when such contact is inappropriate, such as during school or other quiet or focused moments. While adults can learn to manage their hyposensitivity, it is more difficult for children to learn how to control their symptoms.
Weighted blankets may help both hypersensitive and hypersensitive individuals manage the symptoms of sensory processing disorder. With a weighted blanket, children and adults who are hypersensitive can benefit from touch without making contact with another person. And for those who are hypersensitive, the blanket provides firm but gentle pressure that mimics hugging and cuddling.
As people have become more aware of weighted blankets and their benefits, they have discovered that weighted blankets may be able to help with a variety of conditions beyond sensory processing disorder and related conditions like autism, ADHD and Asperger's.
Why use a weighted blanket? Here are five great reasons to give one a try today.
Kick Insomnia to the Curb
If you struggle to fall asleep at night, or you spend hours staring at the ceiling as you long (and sometimes plead with your brain) for rest, you’re not alone. Up to 35 percent of the population has some form of insomnia, and 10 percent of Americans have chronic insomnia, which is insomnia that occurs at least three times each week for a minimum of three months.
By applying firm but gentle pressure to the body, weighted blankets use a therapy tool called “deep pressure touch” or deep pressure stimulation. According to researchers at Harvard University, touch therapy can “have immediate and long-term effects on the body’s biochemistry, including decreased levels of the hormone cortisol, and increased levels of the neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine, which play roles in mood regulation, movement, impulse control, and more.”
Serotonin is also the neurotransmitter responsible for regulating sleep. By mimicking deep pressure touch therapy through the application of firm, consistent pressure throughout the body, weighted blankets may lead to an increase in serotonin, which can, in turn, help people with insomnia fall asleep faster and stay asleep throughout the night. Adequate levels of serotonin also help promote deeper sleep cycles, which is the type of restorative sleep you need to wake feeling refreshed and well-rested.
Non-Drug Therapy for Sensory Disorders
Your occupational therapist or physician may also suggest a weighted blanket as an alternative to medication. In other cases, health professionals use weighted blankets to complement a patient’s prescription medication. It’s important to remember that you should always consult with a medical professional before trying any sort of therapy or health regimen.
As we discussed above, weighted blankets have long been associated with occupational therapy for sensory processing disorders, including related conditions like autism and Asperger’s syndrome. Dr. Temple Grandin, a noted autism researcher and someone on the autism spectrum herself, developed a device called the squeeze machine or hug machine.
In her research and writings about the squeeze machine, Dr. Grandin describes craving hugs and cuddling as a child but being overwhelmed by the sometimes painful sensations caused by touch. She developed the squeeze machine after observing cows being led through a similar device to receive their vaccinations. When the cattle were gently squeezed to keep them still, they became calmer and more relaxed. When Dr. Grandin developed the human version of the squeeze machine, she noted that individuals with sensory disorders experienced the benefits of gentle pressure on their own terms and without unpleasant or unwanted touching.
The squeeze machine and devices like it have been widely praised as a beneficial therapy tool for sensory disorders, but they tend to be bulky and quite expensive. Fortunately, weighted blankets are an affordable and portable alternative. At a fraction of the cost of a squeeze machine, children and adults with sensory disorders can experience the gentle but firm touch that boosts the production of serotonin and oxytocin.
Ease Symptoms of Fibromyalgia
Despite its status as one of the most common chronic pain conditions, fibromyalgia remains underdiagnosed and largely misunderstood. According to the National Fibromyalgia Association, there are about 10 million fibromyalgia sufferers in the United States. Sadly, many fibromyalgia patients go years before they receive a diagnosis. Others are made to feel like their pain is “all in the mind” or something they can easily get over by sleeping more or simply getting more exercise.
People with fibromyalgia can experience a wide range of symptoms and health problems, but one of the main tools used to diagnose the disease is the presence of at least 11 out of 18 pain points or “trigger points.” Individuals with fibromyalgia typically report experiencing deep, persistent pain at these trigger points and may even be unable to tolerate any sort of touch in these areas. Because fibromyalgia symptoms, including pain, can come and go, many sufferers find it difficult to treat their condition. Understandably, some are also reluctant to take medications due to the possibility of unpleasant side effects.
Research shows that weighted blankets can help boost levels of oxytocin, which is known as the “happiness hormone.” A common form of therapy used to ease the symptoms of fibromyalgia is myofascial release, which involves applying firm but gentle pressure to the body in an effort to reduce pain. Weighted blankets reproduce these effects through the use of constant, gentle pressure over the body.
Help Seniors Sleep Better
Many things about our health change as we age and sleep is no exception. Studies show that many adults over age 65 have difficulty falling asleep, with 13 percent of senior men and 36 percent of women needing more than 30 minutes to fall asleep at night. Elderly individuals also experience more sleep disturbances at night, including restlessness and increased sensitivity to sound and light.
If you have an older parent or a senior loved one, you may have noticed that they stay up late at night and often sleep in short bursts. Sleep experts say this isn’t because older adults simply require less sleep than younger people. On the contrary, sleep habits like this are often a sign that an elderly person is suffering from elder insomnia. Inadequate sleep can lead to a host of health problems, which is why it’s important for our older loved ones to get the rest they need.
In a study published in the Journal of Sleep Medicine & Disorders, researchers at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden observed that study participants who used a weighted blanket slept longer and exhibited decreased activity at night, which meant they were less restless during sleep. As the authors state, “Weighted blankets provide a ‘cocooning’ feeling and are often recommended for young patients with ASD and in the care of agitated elderly people.”
Researchers went on to state: “When the participants used the weighted blanket, they had a calmer night’s sleep, with a decrease in movements. Subjectively, they believed that using the blanket provided them with a more comfortable, better quality, and more secure sleep. In conclusion, a weighted blanket may aid in reducing insomnia through increased tactile and proprioceptive inputs, may provide an innovative, non-pharmacological approach and complementary tool to improve sleep quality.”
Anxiety is a common problem in the United States. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of American (ADAA), about 18 percent of the American population experiences anxiety. Anxiety can be sporadic, such as feeling nervous about a big project or a test, but it can also be ongoing and chronic, which can impact just about every part of a person’s life. No matter what type of anxiety you have, it can stop you from enjoying hobbies and spending time with your loved ones.
In a study published in the journal Occupational Therapy in Mental Health, researchers found that 63 percent of study participants who used a 30-pound weighted blanket experienced a reduction in anxiety. Additionally, 78 percent of the people in the study “preferred the weighted blanket as a calming modality.”
If you enjoy cuddling up with a soft, heavy blanket on a cold day, or you like to snuggle under your down comforter at night, you’ve already experienced the benefits of a weighted blanket. Similarly, many people report feeling less anxious after receiving a hug or cuddling with someone they love. This isn’t just because hugging someone you love is a nice gesture (although it definitely is!). Rather, science reveals that hugs encourage the brain to release oxytocin, which improves mood and makes us feel happier and more relaxed.
While hugs are a wonderful thing, it’s not all that practical to hug someone for hours on end. This is where a weighted blanket can do the heavy lifting by extending hug time for as long as you need it. With a weighted blanket, you may feel less anxious and incredibly comfortable — what’s not to love?