The Unexamined Life

Weighted Blankets: Health Benefits And Potential Dangers

Weighted blankets are much like soft and comfortable duvets except the inside is filled with either plastic pellets or glass beads, and sometimes the materials are embedded in cotton and mixed with other materials like discs or flaxseeds.

The fillings are meant to add weight to the blanket, advisably not more than 10 percent of the body weight, plus a little more. If preferred to use another blanket at the same time, it is safer to reduce a few pounds to balance the weight out with the other blanket or duvet, so as to avoid suffocating. 

Also known as Gravity Blankets, they are commercially available to purchase and manufactured by at least two dozen companies at prices ranging from $150 to $300, according to WebMD. The blankets are used with the sole purpose of reducing anxiety and depression and curing insomnia, since they are most often recommended by therapists themselves.

The blankets are used in sensory integration therapy for autistic children to help them regulate emotions by improving their ability to feel things. Due to past incidents where children died under the weight of the blanket, there is some debate about whether it is safe for infants.

However, there is no safety concern for adults and teenages, for it has many positive health benefits, according to Live Science. Here are a few:

Sleep Regulation

A study conducted by the Institute of Neuroscience and Physiology, University of Gothenburg, Sweden, examined 33 participants in the age group of 20 to 66, of which 31 completed the protocol. All of them were healthy patients diagnosed with chronic insomnia according to the 7-item Insomnia Severity Index (ISI).

To establish a baseline period, the participants were asked to go back and sleep in their natural home environment for a week. Following which, they had to choose a weighted blanket based on their preferences and were allowed to interchange it for up to two days. The blankets were returned to the researchers after two weeks of the testing period and they went back to following their regular sleeping rituals for a week, which was considered as the post-test period.

Only 22 participants completed the test in all phases. The findings revealed that during the two-week testing period when the participants slept with the blankets, they had moderate insomnia, but the differences were mild during the pre- and post-testing period.

Anxiety

The usefulness of the deep touch pressure (DTP) to treat anxiety are not backed by empirical evidence, but there is some anecdotal evidence to suggest this reduces anxiety levels.

However, one study conducted in 2013 that measured the heart rate and electrodermal activity of a patient while sleeping with the weighted blanket showed its positive results. Another study conducted in 2008 using similar techniques with adults sleeping with a 30-pound blanket, showed a 63 percent reduction in anxiety for the participants.

Autism

The study entitled “Immediate Effects of Deep Pressure on Young People with Autism and Severe Intellectual Difficulties: A Case Series Demonstrating Individual Differences” published in the 2017 edition of Occupation Therapy International described how sleeping for a short period with the weighted blankets benefited children with autism.

Deep pressure touch based therapy is used to treat autistic disorders since the weighted blanket performs the function of a full body hug, but there is not much research to corroborate the fact except for this one study. 

Staff working with 13 autistic children evaluated the immediate effects of deep pressure therapy. Five of them had reportedly responded well in a short period of time. They were evaluated “using tau-u, a non-parametric technique that allows for serial dependence in data.” The limitation was that the study did not determine the result based on long-term physiological and psychological health parameters..

Weighted blanket Weighted blankets are recommended by therapists treating depression and anxiety. Photo courtesy of Lizette Borreli

Chronic Pain

Fibromyalgia, a condition that causes incurable pain in the bones and muscles, can be treated with a weighted blanket since it helps produce many hormones that decrease pain by inducing sleep. Oxytocin, the cuddle hormone, is produced with the blanket's heavy touch, possibly inducing sleep and giving the body sufficient rest to recover from pain. 

Most importantly, serotonin levels are boosted by sleeping with a weighted blanket wrapped around tightly. Apart from being the hormone that improves anxiety and depression, it also ensures sound sleep and relief for the person suffering from chronic pain.

Possible Dangers of Weighted Blankets

On the other hand, sleeping with weighted blankets also have drawbacks because of their weight and size.

Due to the heavy weight of the blankets, they can be suffocating to some people, especially to those with claustrophobia, sleep apnea, asthma and blood pressure problems.

Diabetic patients or anyone with an open wound and rashes should also avoid weighted blankets to prevent worsening of the conditions. If you are trying to use this to complement any medical treatment, the doctor’s advice is necessary to decide the duration, size and weight of the blanket. 

In Montreal, a nine-year-old autistic boy, Gabriel Poirier, was left to sleep under a 39-pound weighted blanket, while he weighed 50 pounds. Within 20 minutes, he became unconscious. The incident took place in a school for disability that he was attending when he was punished for verbally acting out.

Instead of using this as a method of punishment, critics of the incident that took place in 2008 said the blanket should be used to soothe children on the autistic spectrum and help them. 

In another incident in 2014, a seven-month-old baby boy, named Owen, died in a daycare facility by suffocating under a weighted blanket that lying flat on his stomach. Using the blanket is advisable for older children under supervision for this very reason.

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