The Science Behind Weighted Blankets: Why (and How) They Work
If you or your child has autism, anxiety or a sensory processing disorder, your doctor or occupational therapist may have recommended a weighted blanket as a way to help manage the symptoms. Created to mimic the benefits of deep touch pressure therapy, weighted blankets have been shown to help ease anxiety, increase oxytocin in the brain and help individuals with sensory processing disorders feel more relaxed.
But what does research have to say about weighted blankets? Could a weighted blanket help you? If you've ever wondered about the science behind weighted blankets, we explain how they work, along with the various health conditions they might help treat.
What Is a Weighted Blanket?
A weighted blanket can (and should) resemble a regular blanket. Unlike a regular blanket, however, a weighted blanket is filled with hypoallergenic, non-toxic polypropylene pellets. The pellets are sewn into self-contained small pockets that are evenly distributed throughout the blanket. These pellets give the blanket its weight, which should generally be around 10 percent of the user’s body weight, give or take a few pounds depending on the individual’s needs and preferences.
Another way weighted blankets differ from regular blankets is that they should be sized to fit the person’s body and not their bed. The reason is that a weighted blanket that hangs over the side of the bed will inevitably pull toward the floor.
How Does a Weighted Blanket Work?
Chances are, you own quite a few blankets. We’re all familiar with blankets, how they work and what they’re for. You might even have a favorite blanket, or a blanket you prefer to snuggle up with while you watch television or read a book. Perhaps as a child, you had a blanket, blankie or lovie you carried around with you (and maybe even refused to leave behind). Blankets are a favorite soothing and comfort tool for a lot of people — even if they don’t realize it.
Weighted blankets take the soothing, calming comforts of a regular blanket and combine it with a therapy tool originally pioneered by autism researcher, Temple Grandin. As a young person, Dr. Grandin saw cows being led through a compression device designed to hold them in place for their vaccinations. She noticed that the cows became calmer and more docile when they were gently squeezed.
As someone on the autism spectrum herself, Dr. Grandin recalled how being held and hugged as a child often helped ease her anxiety and sensory processing disorder. However, she also remembered that on some occasions, hugging or holding had irritated or alarmed her. She wondered how she could help people with autism and sensory processing disorders get all the benefits of a hug without feeling confined or restricted.
Using the squeeze machine concept she’d seen on the farm, she built a similar device for people. Known as a squeeze machine or hug machine, the therapy tool she created works by applying firm but gentle pressure throughout the body. Similar to a hug, it stimulates the release of oxytocin — the happiness chemical in the brain.
Why Do Weighted Blankets Help with Autism and Sensory Processing Disorder?
The benefits of hugging and cuddling are well-established. Oxytocin is an important neurotransmitter that helps people feel relaxed, calm and generally happy. As Christopher Bergland at Psychology Today writes, “Oxytocin is a hormone directly linked to human bonding and increasing trust and loyalty.” Studies have shown that cuddling can produce oxytocin, which boosts an individual’s sense of wellbeing.
In fact, the benefits of hugging and cuddling are so well-known that they’ve been incorporated into various forms of therapy. Research has shown that deep touch pressure therapy can boost oxytocin in people with autism, anxiety and sensory processing disorder.
When you have a sensory processing disorder, however, touch and tactile sensitivity can cause anxiety, an unsettled feeling and even pain. Adults and children with sensory processing disorder or autism can’t always tolerate hugging or cuddling. This is where a weighted blanket may help. By applying firm but gentle pressure, a weighted blanket delivers all of the benefits of a hug without forcing unwelcome or unpleasant body contact with another person.
There are a variety of squeeze machines on the market today. However, the majority of these devices are quite costly, with most models priced in the hundreds or even thousands of dollars. Because they have such high price tags, they are frequently only available in hospitals and therapy centers. Fortunately, a weighted blanket may deliver all of the same benefits of a squeeze machine, but at an affordable price that fits everyone’s budget.
What Types of Conditions Can a Weighted Blanket Help?
Weighted blankets are perhaps most closely associated with sensory processing disorder and related conditions like autism, anxiety and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). However, weighted blankets may help with a wide variety of other health issues.
Deep touch pressure therapy promotes the release of oxytocin, and because oxytocin is known to help ease a broad range of health conditions, it’s useful for alleviating the symptoms of anxiety, insomnia, restless leg syndrome and fibromyalgia.
Weighted Blankets for Sensory Processing Disorder
Sensory processing disorder can take one of two forms. Some children and adults with sensory processing disorder are hypersensitive (oversensitive) to stimuli, and may become overwhelmed by noise, crowds or touching. In other people, sensory processing disorder takes the form of hyposensitivity (undersensitivity). This group may have difficulty sensing noises, touch and other stimuli. Whereas someone who is oversensitive might avoid hugs or touching, an undersensitive person may actually seek it out. In some cases, people with undersensitivity also have a very high pain tolerance.
Therapists and medical professionals offer a variety of tools and therapies to help treat the symptoms of sensory processing disorder. For example, your therapist may have suggested a weighted blanket as a way to help you or your child handle the issues associated with the disorder. Because a weighted blanket is an object and not a person, children who are hypersensitive may respond better to it because they get to control the blanket. In other words, they decide how much or how little touch they would like to experience and can adjust the blanket to cover the areas where they feel they can tolerate pressure. And for adults and children who are hyposensitive, the blanket provides the firm, gentle pressure they crave.
Weighted Blankets for Autism
Dr. Temple Grandin is perhaps the most notable researcher on the use of deep touch pressure as a therapeutic tool for autism. As she writes in the Journal of Child and Adolescent Psychopharmacology, “Deep touch pressure is the type of surface pressure that is exerted in most types of firm touching, holding, stroking, petting of animals, or swaddling… Autistic children will often seek out deep pressure sensations.”
Like the squeeze machine, a weighted blanket mimics deep pressure touch therapy, which may help calm and soothe children and adults with autism.
Weighted Blankets for Anxiety
There are about 40 million anxiety sufferers in the United States, making it one of the most common mental illnesses in the country. The good news is that anxiety is highly treatable, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA). Despite this, the ADAA reports that just 36.9 percent of sufferers get the treatment they need.
Anxiety can wreak havoc on your daily life, as well as make falling asleep at night a challenge. In a study that measured the vital signs of adults who used weighted blankets, 63 percent of participants said they felt less anxiety while using the weighted blanket. Researchers also recorded a 33 percent drop in electrodermal activity — a response generated by the sweat glands, often in response to stress. If you deal with chronic anxiety, a weighted blanket may help you sleep better at night and experience more worry-free days.
Weighted Blankets for ADHD
Researchers at Temple University found that 95 percent of participants with ADHD in a studyimproved when they received sensory intervention. The interventions offered included deep pressure touch therapy and a variety of strenuous exercise. As one researcher stated, “We found significant improvement in sensory avoiding behaviors, tactile sensitivity, and visual auditory sensitivity in the group that received treatment.”
If your therapist uses deep pressure touch therapy, he or she may suggest using a weighted blanket so you can continue to receive the benefits at home.
Weighted Blankets for Insomnia
Most Americans don’t get enough sleep. In fact, the National Sleep Foundation reports that 45 percent of the population consistently gets “poor or insufficient sleep.” According to the Sleep Health Foundation, 1 out of 3 adults suffers from insomnia. If you have insomnia, you know how frustrating it can be to desperately want to sleep, yet be unable to fall asleep or stay asleep through the night.
Scientific research has shown that deep touch pressure — sometimes called deep pressure stimulation — can create a calm, peaceful feeling that reduces insomnia. In the journal Occupational Therapy in Mental Health, 78 percent of participants in a weighted blanket study said that using a 30-pound weighted blanket made them feel calmer.
Weighted Blankets for Restless Leg Syndrome
People who suffer from restless leg syndrome experience frequent and sometimes constant uncomfortable feelings and sensations in their legs. Sufferers describe these sensations in a number of ways, including “pins and needles” and “creepy crawly.” To get relief, they often feel an overwhelming urge to move their legs — hence the name for the disorder. When symptoms strike at night, sufferers can spend hours tossing and turning.
Weighted blankets may help ease the symptoms of restless leg syndrome by applying steady, even pressure around the legs. And because weighted blankets can help boost oxytocin, people with restless leg syndrome may also feel calmer and less anxious, which can lead to more restful sleep.
Weighted Blankets for Fibromyalgia
Fibromyalgia is a chronic pain disorder that is often misunderstood and misdiagnosed. People with fibromyalgia experience a range of symptoms, including widespread pain and heightened sensitivity on at least 11 out of 18 pain points throughout the body.
Unfortunately, many patients with fibromyalgia go years and sometimes decades before they are properly diagnosed. This can be an incredibly frustrating and demoralizing experience. There are about 5 million fibromyalgia sufferers in the U.S., but experts say there are likely many more who remain undiagnosed.
One therapy that can help alleviate the symptoms of fibromyalgia is myofascial release, which involves the application of firm but gentle pressure over the fibromyalgia pain points. Weighted blankets can mimic this pressure, which may help fibromyalgia sufferers experience a reduction in symptoms.
SensaCalm Weighted Blankets