Often in the pursuit of more effective, less expensive ways to remediate illnesses and other conditions, ideas from the past are seen in a new light. That seems to be the case with weighted blanket benefits.
Weighted blankets are based on old ideas such as swaddling infants and on practices that are physically enjoyable for most people, such as hugs. For centuries, deep muscle stimulation in the form of massage has been known to produce benefits in multiple ways. Calming stress-induced muscle tension is one of the most well-known. And, everyone knows the benefits of petting and stroking cats and dogs for bringing pleasurable sensations to both the one being petted and the one doing the petting.
Contrasted with a heavier touch, light touches often bring irritation. Consider a fly landing on your leg. What is the first thing you want to do? Shoo it away, of course. But if your best friend lays a heavy arm across your shoulders, what do you feel? The comfort of that friendship.
Light touching stimulates the body to act. It alerts the nervous system, readying it for action. But heavy touching brings a relaxed and calming effect: https://www.drlam.com/articles/adrenal_fatigue.asp.
What Are Weighted Blankets?
Weighted blankets are just that: Blankets that are heavier than normal because of the use of plastic poly pellets, like those found in Beany Baby toys. This gives the blankets an evenly-distributed weight that is said to give a calming effect.
The benefits of weighted blankets include improving sleep for those who need it. For kids and adults with a variety of conditions, weight blankets are reported to have a calming effect.
These blankets have traditionally been utilized in occupational therapy efforts for kids who experience sensory disorders, stress, and anxiety.
Initially, the idea for weighted blankets came when the inventor’s daughter placed along Beanie Baby over his shoulders while he was driving. The effect was so pleasing, he ultimately developed a blanket that would give the same effect on the entire body.
Having this kind of weight distributed over the entire body uses the principles behind deep pressure stimulation to bring about a release of serotonin and dopamine in the brain. These two neurotransmitters exert a calming and relaxing effect when stimulated.
The Science Behind Weighted Blanket Benefits
Much of the information regarding weighted blanket benefits is anecdotal. The science itself is sparse, and some are not particularly rigorous. At least one of the more rigorous studies conducted actually found no significant weighted blanket benefits.
But other studies have found at least enough weighted blanket benefits to justify further studies into the topic. One study examined the safety and efficacy of using weighted blankets for the remediation of anxiety in adults with mental health conditions. Thirty-two adults were involved in this exploratory study. The safety aspects were measured by blood pressure, pulse rate, and pulse oximetry, while the effectiveness was evaluated by using the State-Trait Anxiety Inventory and electrodermal activity. Results indicated the use of weighted blankets to be safe to use in adults. Other results showed a significant decrease in anxiety using the weighted blankets.
These results showed significant weighted blanket benefits and will be used in further research into the clinical use of weighted blankets.
Other research has indicated one of the weighted blanket benefits to be an increase in relaxation through stimulation of the parasympathetic nervous system. The deep touch-pressure induced by weighted blankets is transmitted by the dorsal column system to the thalamus and reticular formation and then to sensory areas in the parietal lobe of the cerebral cortex.
Some research has shown the reticular formation to be involved in arousal. This function apparently explains the ability of the deep touch-pressure to bring about calm. There are also connections with the limbic system and the dorsal column through the hypothalamus and the anterolateral system. This redundant functionality in the nervous system provides one explanation of this kind of intervention.
Another explanation for the weighted blanket benefits has to do with deep touch-pressure sending sensory information to Purkinje cells in the cerebellum. Because these Purkinje cells contain large amounts of serotonin, they inhibit motor activity by dampening the stimulation of the reticular formation. This makes possible one of the weighted blanket benefits for children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).
Children with ADHD have been found to have lower levels of serotonin in their brains. Thus, an increase in this neurotransmitter would tend to inhibit some of the over-activity found in these children. Naturally increasing the level of serotonin in these children through the use of weighted blankets could be very beneficial.
One small study (with a total of 4 students) measured the practicality, convenience, and efficacy of wearing weighted vests in the classroom. A significant increase in on-task behavior in the classroom with these children was seen. This finding suggests the use of weighted vests in the classroom is potentially beneficial for ADHD children. However, it also suggests the need for continuing research with controls and larger samples.
Another study involving 50 adults investigated the effect of deep touch-pressure through the wearing of weighted vests. Autonomic arousal and performance were studied. Results indicated wearing a weighted vest for even a short time decreased sympathetic arousal and increased parasympathetic arousal at the same time. Significant increases in performance were also seen after wearing the weighted vest. Results strongly suggest that deep-touch pressure brings changes in autonomic arousal. These results also strongly suggest the need for further research to determine the efficacy of this approach in remediation efforts by occupational therapists.