Living With Chronic Pain

Do Weighted Blankets Help Chronic Pain?

We all know how important getting a good nights sleep is to our overall health and well fare. In fact, I believe it is one of the biggest contributing factor to pain, anxiety, obesity, and anger control issues. When we are sleep deprived it affects every aspect of our lives. Anyone struggling with chronic pain knows, getting a good night’s sleep is a top priority. 

Too often, we toss and turn, constantly seeking a position that will allow us to finally fade away. If you’re like me it’s a never ending struggle. When my neck is finally supported just right my lower back cries out in pain. When my arms are situated just right, my legs aren’t. Add to that the unending stream off thoughts I can’t turn off or the pain that builds from being in one position far too long and an uninterrupted night of sleep is a distant dream.

Before I know it morning has arrived and another day is upon me.

Sleep is imperative, and just like eating and drinking water, it’s required to sustain life. Both are regulated by powerful internal drives. Why we need sleep is still up for debate.

According to an article in the Harvard Journal of Heath 3 possibilities exist:

1) To conserve energy. Energy metabolism has been shown to be reduced by as much as 10% during sleep. Body temperature and caloric demand are decreased during sleep, as compared to wakefulness.

2) Sleep provides an opportunity for the body to repair and rejuvenate itself. Animals deprived entirely of sleep lose all immune function and die in just a matter of weeks. This is further supported by findings that many of the major restorative functions in the body like muscle growth, tissue repair, protein synthesis, and growth hormone release occur mostly, or in some cases only, during sleep.

3) Rejuvenating aspects of sleep are specific to the brain and cognitive function. When awake, neurons in the brain produce adenosine, a by-product of the cells’ activities. The build-up of adenosine in the brain is thought to be one factor that leads to our perception of being tired. This feeling is counteracted by the use of caffeine, which blocks the actions of adenosine in the brain and keeps us alert. Scientists think that this build-up of adenosine during wakefulness may promote the “drive to sleep.” As long as we are awake, adenosine accumulates and remains high. During sleep, the body has a chance to clear adenosine from the system, and, as a result, we feel more alert when we wake.

That’s why we will are willing to try anything that may help us to get a good night sleep. The question is, what works? One possible option that’s been in the news recently are weighted blankets. Ads have touted their ability to help us fall asleep and stay asleep. Could it be that easy? Just switch out your blanket?

Here’s what proponents claims these blankets can do:

Impact hormones

Serotonin affects every part of our body, from emotions to motor skills. it is a natural mood stabilizer and helps with sleeping, eating, and digesting. That’s why just a slight imbalance can have a significant impact on our health.

Studies have shown that serotonin is often low in those who suffer from fibromyalgia. One study found that “grounding” patients while they sleep – a process that involves applying gentle pressure through the use of a weighted blanket – reduced cortisol (the stress hormone) and boosted serotonin levels in patients’ saliva. This is important because higher levels of serotonin may decrease fatigue and improve energy levels.    

Provide pressure stimulation

Deep Touch Pressure Stimulation (DTPS) is a firm, gentle pressure that is applied to the body. This pressure releases serotonin and dopamine – both uplifting neurotransmitters- creating an overall sense of calm and well-being, which makes the nervous system relax. Applying this pressure to the body can decrease overall anxiety while improving sleep and focus.

Deep touch pressure stimulation also decreases the level of cortisol (the stress hormone) in your body, which is significant for people who encounter anxiety on a regular basis.  A study published in the journal of Occupational Therapy in Mental Health found that when DTPS was applied, 63% of participants exhibited positive changes in their physiological symptoms of anxiety. A weighted blanket provides this firm but gentle pressure anytime and anywhere. Another alternative is a weighted wrap. They are smaller and portable.

Improve mood 

Often bouts of sadness are due to chemical changes in the brain that lower levels of serotonin and dopamine (our feel good hormones) and increase cortisol (stress), both impacting mood. Research shows deep touch pressure promotes calm by restoring balance.

It’s also like being embraced in a warm hug. I remember how incredible my fathers arms wrapped around me could feel. For those precious moments life was calm and safe. This is because when we hug we release a neurotransmitter called oxytocin– the happiness hormone. In effect that is what a weighted blanket is supposed to imitate. What better way to be lulled asleep than with the gentle, firm pressure a blanket provides that causes oxytocin to surge into our bloodstream, allowing the body to relax.

The idea behind weighted blankets and wraps is to reproduce all these hormones that we get from hugs and gentle pressure whenever and wherever needed. Especially after a long, painful day when sleep is desperately required.

Free us from medications 

It might be a wonderful alternative to medications. Instead of turning to the prescription bottle try a little soothing pressure first as a natural alternative. 

Remember those mornings you awoke snuggled beneath your comforter, feeling warm, cozy, and safe? Like a swaddled baby it helps release a whole cascade of events that lead to a calmer, better nights rest- all drug free. A weighted blanket may be able to break the viscous cycle of insomnia by improving sleep quality. This then eases tense muscles, reduces stress, and decreases anxiety. Achieving restorative sleep allows the body to reset its response to pain and increase its pain threshold.

In one study, researchers found that starting with light pressure, later gradually increasing to moderate pressure, and then using deep pressure during massage therapy reduced pain reflexes in those with chronic pain conditions. This is the theory behind the proposed extra pressure of a weighted blanket. 

Which is right for me 

Weighted blankets are usually filled with plastic pellets to add weight, ranging from about 4 to 25 pounds. Companies suggest using one that is about 10% of your body weight so it will not be too heavy, and for kids, 10% of their body weight plus 1-2 pounds. Or a target of 7% to 12% of your body weight. Use caution with children. They may feel overwhelmed, not reassured, by the weight. Start light and build up slowly if needed. 

Although there are no major risks associated with properly used weighted blankets, always clear with your healthcare provider. If it makes you uncomfortable for any reason or worsens pain, stop using.

Weighted blankets can wrap us in a cocoon of warmth and gentle pressure in order to set off a series of events that provide a soothing effect which improves sleep. As long as it doesn’t create a problem why not give it a try?


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