The underlying idea is dead simple: create a cocooning embrace, like being swaddled. Petrulis compares it to a firm, comforting hug. According to Gaby Badre, a leading sleep researcher who’s studied weighted blanket therapy for treating insomnia in adults, there is good reason to believe this is because the deep pressure touch of a weighted material spread over part or all of the body dials down the fight-or-flight arousals of the sympathetic nervous system. (It’s generally accepted that a weighted blanket should be at least 10 percent the person’s body weight.) There is also speculation that lying under heavy constant pressure such as a weighted blanket feels good because it somehow lights up the brain’s reward center, probably triggering the release of neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine.
But that’s about the extent of our understanding of the science beneath weighted blankets. No one knows precisely what goes on in the brain and throughout the body under this kind of pressure; whether the mechanism is mere placebo, or if something else altogether makes lying under a weighted blanket feel so reassuring and safe that it could bring deep, restorative sleep to those who need it but can’t otherwise get it on their own.
It’s this mystery that still largely colors weighted blankets as non-evidence-based folk remedies to sleep disorders.
“It’s almost like I have feelings in the dream. I physically feel in the dreams”
They have shown promise as anti-anxiety and stress-relief aids in the very young and the very old. There is data and evidence to support claims that heavy blankets can help calm children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, autism, and other sensory disorders, as well as elderly people with dementia, added Badre, who’s been studying sleep since the late 1980s and currently oversees sleep medicine clinics at The London Clinic, the Institute of Neuroscience and Physiology at the University of Gothenburg, and SDS Kliniken.
The between years, from roughly age 14 through 60, are murkier. There just isn’t sufficient data from clinical experience, at least not yet. There is hardly any supporting research, just anecdotal evidence, that shows the potential of weighted blankets having the same arousal-reducing effects as well as sleep-inducing ones in adult populations, including combat veterans like Petrulis.
No small number of Iraq and Afghanistan war vets have trouble sleeping. Among patients of the Veterans Health Administration, the healthcare arm of the Department of Veterans Affairs, in 2015, 1,262,393 veterans—over 20 percent—had a sleep disorder diagnosis in the past two years, according to a VA representative. Those million-plus diagnosed sleep disorder cases, to say nothing of undiagnosed cases, are all different; various external factors like back and other muscular, skeletal, and neurological issues, plus prescription drug histories, bring unique forces and circumstances to bear on combat-related sleep disturbances.
Petrulis is one veteran battling sleep after war. And one veteran reporting positive results, with no apparent side effects, from a non-evidence-based sleep aid is notable. But it’s not enough to convince the government to fund or conduct clinical research into that aid.
Neither the VA nor the Department of Defense are exploring weighted blanket therapy. Petrulis and Chelsea Benard, a licensed occupational therapist who introduced him to weighted blanket therapy in the fall of 2015, wonder why not. Petrulis and Benard, who handstitched the 17-pound blanket Petrulis currently uses, don’t think the blanket is a cure-all for his sleep problems, but rather a promising, albeit under-researched supplement to other evidence-based treatment options for sleep and anxiety issues.
“What’s neat is it’s a non-pharmacological approach that can be used as a complement tool to any other kind of treatment,” says Benard, who had the idea to try out weighted blankets with adult patients after she saw success using them on kids. “It’s not going to have any side effects.”
She and Petrulis genuinely believe the technique can help people like him who cope with combat-related PTSD or TBI, whose core symptoms include sleep disturbances. And he says he’s tried just about everything when it comes to sleep.
The VA initially prescribed him Ambien, which he tried once with no luck. The VA then upped the dosage, but still nothing; he’d sleep a few hours, then be up the rest of the night. They also put him on Valium for panic attacks, but that didn’t help either, even after an upped dosage. The VA currently has him on Prazosin, a blood pressure medication developed in the 1980s that’s been shown to stanch night terrors, and also has him on Klonopin, an anti-anxiety drug, for panic attacks. He says the Klonopin isn’t working, and is unsure whether or not Prazosin is helping. When he tries to power down at night, his brain is often going a million miles an hour.
Except while he’s under the weighted blanket. He says it’s the only thing that helps him sleep. Nothing else gets him in a place at the end of the day where he can calm down and drift off. To this day, he hasn’t had a nightmare with the blanket on.
But bad dreams still haunt him.