The Science Behind Weighted Blankets
Explained by an Occupational Therapist
By: Madeline Jeppesen, OTR/L, CLT
Why Are Weighted Blankets Popular?
The use of weight can be easily implemented for individuals with a variety of diagnoses or areas of difficulty. Weighted blankets have gained popularity in recent years and are becoming a frequently used therapeutic tool—both with mental health and physiological application.
The research surrounding the use of weighted blankets shows improvement in sleep and anxiety—which are both large issues that our society is facing. Add the use of screens (think cell phone, tablet, or TV) prior to bed, and more and more individuals are facing sleep difficulties. This has created a use for weighted blankets during daily life—not just in clinical application.
So how does a weighted blanket work? Are their really benefits to using one—or is it all psychological? Keep reading to learn some of the science behind weighted blankets!
Deep Pressure Stimulation
But why does weight work for sleeping, anxiety, tremors, attention, and other areas of difficulty? We know from research that deep pressure and touch can increase the amount of the neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine in the brain which specifically regulate mood and impulses (1).
Deep pressure also causes your parasympathetic nervous system to act and reduce the “fight or flight” response that happens when you are stressed. This encourages better sleep and a sense of calm. This system lowers your heart rate and increases blood flow (2).
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The science behind weighted blankets becomes even more interesting when we factor in proprioceptive input—let me explain. We are created to have multiple sensory systems: visual, auditory, olfactory, vestibular, touch, taste, and proprioception. The proprioceptive system specifically tells your body where you are located in space. We need this system for daily function to keep us moving safely and interacting appropriately with our environment. Our brain gains information from our muscles, bones, tendons, and ligaments as we move and creates a picture of what our body is doing and how we may need to adapt to our environment.
The touch and proprioceptive system are the systems that therapeutic weight targets most closely. Both adults and children may be sensory seeking or sensory defensive for a variety of reasons. During graduate school, one of my professors explained sensory processing with the use of the cup analogy from “A Child’s View of Sensory Processing”.
The concept explains that each person has a cup for sensory information. If an individual’s “proprioceptive” or “touch cup” is very small—and sensory information is coming in like water—he or she is going to fill that cup more quickly than others. This means that they are oversensitive to proprioceptive and touch input.
Examples of this kind of input are hugs, a weighted blanket, or heavy clothing. Individuals who have a very large “proprioceptive cup” need a lot of input to feel comfortable. These are the adults or children who enjoy leaning on their arms on the table. They love touch that includes hugs or animals sitting on their laps. Perhaps they seek out jumping, toe walking, or headbanging. They are the ones that find heavy clothing comforting and enjoy weighted blankets.
There are many other things that individuals may do to either avoid or seek out proprioceptive input but these are just a few examples. There may be other reasons that these actions occur but many times the sensory system plays a primary role.
Disclaimer: If you or someone you know does these things and it interferes with daily life it is best to have a formal assessment with a doctor and occupational therapist to determine the best treatment option.
Application In My Clinical Practice
Most people think the use of weight—specifically weighted blankets—as being most applicable in the treatment of autism, anxiety, and sleep disturbances. In my occupational therapy practice, I have seen positive results of therapeutic weight with my patients who have concussions, Parkinson’s disease, and essential tremors.
After a concussion, the brain has become damaged and individuals have difficulty processing sensory information leaving them with oculomotor difficulties, memory impairment, dizziness, persistent headaches and feelings of being overwhelmed. For some of my patients, adding a small weighted lap blanket can help them feel they can concentrate during their exercises and reduce symptoms of dizziness. One of my patients described it as feeling “grounded” and the room was “no longer spinning”.
For patients with Parkinson’s disease or essential tremors, weight can reduce the impact of tremors on daily life. I have also used weight to reduce dyskinesia which can occur during the treatment of Parkinson’s disease and negatively impact function. It must be noted that this does not work for everyone with tremors or dyskinesias and it is essential to discuss this with a medical provider. They can help you find the best weight for you and ensure you are not negatively impacting movement amplitude or movement patterns.
More research is needed to evaluate the overall effectiveness of using weight with the mentioned conditions. However, with the many applications of therapeutic weight, you may find improvement in daily function. I recommend working with your healthcare provider to determine if therapeutic weight would benefit you (3, 4, 5).
What do you think about the science behind weighted blankets and how they work? Did you find it interesting? Let me know!
About the Author
Madeline Jeppesen, OTR/L, CLT
Madeline Jeppesen is a licensed and certified Occupational Therapist with a Master's degree in Occupational Therapy from St. Catherine University. She is experienced in LSVT BIG therapy, lymphedema treatment, neurological rehab specific to Parkinson's Disease, as well as concussion and rehabilitation for visual impairments.