What's the deal with weighted blankets?

We’re often asked whether or not weighted blankets have any benefit for children or adults who have anxiety, sensory issues, or autism. We decided to answer this question by diving into the research to see if a weighted blanket could be beneficial for your family.


What is a weighted blanket?

A weighted blanket is a sensory intervention tool that is noninvasive, self-directed, and uses a form of deep pressure stimulation (DPS) [1, 2, 3]. DPS is purported to increase parasympathetic arousal (i.e., the rest and digest system) while reducing sympathetic arousal (i.e., the fight or flight system) resulting in a calming effect [4, 5]. Companies that produce and sell weighted blankets claim that weighted blankets help reduce stress, anxiety, and improve overall sleep quality. But what does the evidence say?

(You can skip to the bottom for the final verdict if you’d like to skip the research recap!)


Do Weighted Blankets Help With…

Sleep?

In a study of 31 men and women with chronic insomnia, weighted blanket use was related to an increase in overall sleep time and decreased nighttime movement [6]. Participants indicated that they found it easier to fall asleep, enjoyed sleep more, and felt more refreshed when using the weighted blanket. Participants reported a calmer night's sleep when using the blanket.


Anxiety and Other Mental Disorders?

One study evaluated the effects of weighted blankets on anxiety in 15 adults undergoing dental treatment [7]. Researchers measured heart rate variability, electrodermal activity (indicates emotional reactivity), and anxiety (using the Numeric State Anxiety Scale and Dental Anxiety Scale). The effects induced from the weighted blanket were found to alleviate anxiety. The authors claimed the application of a weighted blanket has demonstrated a potential calming effect on the alleviation of anxiety in a dental environment.

The same authors also examined the use of weighted blankets for anxiety in 60 healthy adults undergoing wisdom tooth surgery [4] Use of the blanket increased the regulation of parasympathetic activity and autonomic nervous system modulation (which controls the internal organs and has two branches: sympathetic (stress response) and parasympathetic (relaxation), based on heart rate and heart rate variability (HRV) measurements.


Furthermore, the safety and effectiveness of weighted blanket use in 30 adults within an acute inpatient mental health unit [3]. Weighted blankets were shown to be safe for 100% of participants and effective at reducing anxiety for 60% of participants.


Autism?

Weighted blankets were effective in increasing total sleep per night and decreasing time to fall asleep in two children with autism spectrum disorder [8]. This study cannot be generalized beyond the two individuals in the case study because of the small sample size. A randomized controlled study of a slightly larger group of children with ASD (n = 67) evaluated the effectiveness of a weighted-blanket intervention in treating severe sleep problems [9]. One group used a commercially available weighted blanket or an otherwise identical usual weight blanket (control). Results indicated that the weighted blanket, compared with the control blanket, did not increase total sleep time. In addition, there were no group differences in any other measures of sleep. On subjective preference measures, parents and children favored the weighted blanket. Overall, the use of a weighted blanket did not help children with ASD sleep for a longer period of time, fall asleep significantly faster, or wake less often.


Weighted blankets have also been compared to compression vests and exercise (e.g., riding a stationary bike) for their impact on stereotyped behaviours (e.g., hand flapping, echolalia); however, the study only included 3 children with ASD [10]. Results revealed that the two types of DPS examined were largely ineffective. One of the students refused to use the weighted blanket at all; one student refused to use the weighted blanket on one occasion, but it reduced stereotypical behaviors slightly; and there was no change in behavior or attention for the 3rd student.


What’s the Verdict?

Research is limited on the effectiveness of weighted blanket use. Although these studies resulted in improved sleep and anxiety based on participant reports, it is important to point out that only one study contained a control group [9] and one study used a repeated measures design where participants acted as their own control [6]. Overall, current research indicates that using a weighted blanket may help decrease anxiety, increase total sleep time, and improve sleep quality, but results are not conclusive. Various studies also concluded that those who use weighted blankets rate them rather favorably when compared to other blankets. With all alternative treatments, it is important to talk with your doctor, occupational therapist, or psychologist to make sure it will work for you.


Are you struggling with anxiety or sleep? Book in a free consultation with Alex (alex@highpointpsychology.com).




Blog post written by Kassandra Burk and Dr. Andrea Stelnicki.

Literature review prepared by Kassandra Burk.

*The information contained in this blog post is based on a review of available literature. Some studies may have been unintentionally omitted. You are advised to speak with a health care professional to determine if the information is appropriate to your specific circumstances.*


References:

[1] Mullen, B., Champagne, T., Krishnamurty, S., Dickson, D., & Gao, R. X. (2008). Exploring the Safety and Therapeutic Effects of Deep Pressure Stimulation Using a Weighted Blanket. Occupational Therapy in Mental Health. Vol 24

[2] Champagne, T. (2010). Weighted blanket competency-based training program: Adult mental health populations. Ann Arbor, MI: ProQuest

[3] Champagne, T., Mullen, B, Dickson, D., Krishnamurty, S. (2015). Evaluating the Safety and Effectiveness of the Weighted Blanket With Adults During an Inpatient Mental Health Hospitalization. Occupational Therapy in Mental Health, 31:3, 211-233, DOI: 10.1080/0164212X.2015.1066220

[4] Chen, H., Yang, H., Meng, L., & Chan, P. S. (2016). Effect of deep pressure input on parasympathetic system in patients with wisdom tooth surgery. Journal of the Formosan Medical Association. DOI:10.1016/j.jfma.2016.07.008

[5] Reynolds, S., Lane, S. J., & Mullen, B. (2015). Brief report: Effects of deep pressure stimulation on physiological arousal. American Journal of OccupationalTherapy, 69, 6903350010p1–6903350010p5. doi: 10.5014=ajot.2015.015560

[6] Ackerly, R., Badre, G., & Olausson, H. (2015). Positive Effects of a Weighted Blanket on Insomnia. Journal of Sleep Medicine and Disorders. 2(3): 1022

[7] Chen, H., Yang, H., Chi, H., & H, Chen. (2013). Physiological Effects of Deep Touch Pressure on Anxiety Alleviation: The Weighted Blanket Approach. Journal of Medical and Biological Engineering. 33(5):463-470. DOI:10.5405/jmbe.1043

[8] Gee, B., Peterson, T., Buck, A., & Lloyd, K. (2016). Improving sleep quality using weighted blankets among young children with an autism spectrum disorder. International Journal of Therapy and Rehabilitation. 2016 23:4, 173-181

[9] Gringas, P., Green, D., Wright, B., Rush, C., Sparrowhawk, M., Pratt, K., Allgar, V., Hooke, N., Moore, D., Zaiwalla, Z., & Wiggs, L. (2014). Weighted blankets and sleep in autistic children-a randomized controlled trial. Pediatrics. DOI: 10.1542/peds.2013-4285

[10] Losinski, M., Cook, K., Hirsch, S., & Sanders, S. (2017). The effects of deep pressure therapies and antecedent exercise on stereotypical behaviors of students with autism spectrum disorders. Behavioral Disorders, 42(4), 196–208

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