The Science behind Weighted Blankets- Do they work?

The Science behind Weighted Blankets- Do they work?

Written by
Lauren Mason
Jan 5, 2021
Anxiety is a common occurrence within our modern world. Amongst busy work schedules, hectic social lives and never ending ‘chats’ with friends on social media, no wonder we all experience a little anxiety from time to time. If you have experienced anxiety at any point in your life you may have thought about purchasing a weighted blanket as a means of unwinding and relaxing after a particularly busy or stressful day. But does a weighted blanket actually do what it says it’s going to do? Let’s check out the science behind the proposed saviour for anxious folk.
The theory behind the weighted blanket is that the ‘deep touch pressure’ that it provides helps to calm and settle the nervous system. Deep touch pressure is a form of sensory input that generally takes the form of hugging, swaddling or squeezing a person.  A therapy blanket is designed to simulate the same sensation and theoretically deliver similar benefits. A recent study found that the application of ‘deep touch pressure’, helps anxious people manage their anxiety [1]. When we become anxious the sympathetic nervous system responsible for the fight or flight stress response is activated, leading to feelings of restlessness, stress and anxiety. A weighted blanket is suggested to put your fight or flight response in to rest mode.
Weighted blankets have been around for a while now. Originally the blankets were found to be effective for treating anxiety for clinical conditions in psychiatric facilities, however are now used to support people diagnosed with ADHD, autism spectrum disorders and pervasive developmental disorders. Elderly populations have also benefited from the use of weighted blankets, with many nursing homes making use of the blankets to give residents with anxiety or dementia related conditions feelings of safety, comfort and calmness.
Whilst weighted blankets are designed to induce feelings of safety, comfort and relaxation, regarding scientific evidence there is little.
In one of the only known studies of weighted blankets and anxiety more than 60 percent of participants reported their anxiety levels as lower after using the weighted blanket. Additionally, of the individuals involved in the study, 78% of participants reported lower anxiety after using the blanket as compared to those that didn’t.
Weighted blanket companies also claim that the blankets can induce a calmer nights’ sleep and improve sleep quality for some. Some professionals disagree. Evidence based research is scarce for this claim with only anecdotal claims supporting the use of the blankets. Increasingly Occupational Therapists are moving away from the use of weighted blankets with clients and have taken up evidence-based techniques such as mindfulness and cognitive therapies including Acceptance and Commitment Therapy to manage anxiety.
However, the plight of the weighted blanket is not over yet. Weighted blankets are popular and they are still reported to be useful for the everyday person that has troubled sleep patterns or has an anxious day. Note however, that weighted blankets are not recommended for individuals with respiratory conditions or circulatory problems.

I’m sold. What do I look out for when purchasing a weighted blanket?

If you are thinking about purchasing a weighted blanket it’s important to note the blanket itself varies in design, where a quilt is filled with chains or small weighted balls, both designed to deliver similar effects. However, they could differ in providing different sensations. Some evidence suggests those blankets filled with chains are marginally more effective than the alternative, supposedly dispersing the weight more even across a person’s body.

Our tips on how to select the best weighted blanket for you

1.    Choose a weighted blanket that weighs more than 10% of your body weight.
2.    Ensure the blanket is made of good quality materials that won’t irritate your skin or be too warm for you at night, especially in the summer months.
3.    Make sure you get a weighted blanket with a washable cover. You will not be able to wash the weighted blanket itself in the washing machine.

[1] Chen, H.Y., Yang, H., Chi, H. J., & Chen, H. M. (2013). Physiological effects of deep touch pressure on anxiety alleviation: The weighted blanket approach. Journal of Medical and Biological Engineering33(5),463-470.