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Does a Weighted Blanket Help with ADHD?

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We all know a kid like this.   

The one who alternately can’t sit still and daydreams in class. The chatterbox who has trouble focusing. The scatterbrain who forgets to bring his lunch every other day.  The daredevil who takes crazy risks and can’t resist temptation.   The agitator who makes friends but just can’t seem to keep them.

Whether you recognize that kid as your son or daughter, grandchild, or even as yourself, the behaviors and problems they have dealing with everyday life may be due to Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).   One of the most common neurodevelopmental disorders of childhood, it’s usually diagnosed in childhood and very often lasts well into adulthood.

The Centers for Disease Prevention and Control reports that the estimated number of children ever diagnosed with ADHD, according to a national 2016 parent survey, is 6.1 million (9.4%). Additionally, approximately 4.4% or 10.5 million adults are estimated to have ADHD.

 

 Genetics?   Environment?  Too much sugar?  What causes ADHD?

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Based on recent studies of twins, the most promising explanation is that genetics may play an important role.   However, scientists are also studying other possible causes and risk factors, including:

  • Use of alcohol and tobacco during pregnancy
  • Premature delivery
  • Low birth weight
  • Exposure to environmental toxins like lead during pregnancy or at a young age
  • Brain injury 

The CDC has also largely debunked popularly held views that ADHD is caused by poverty, a chaotic family life, eating too much sugar or watching too much TV.  It’s possible that these things might make ADHD symptoms worse, but they are not the main cause.

 

How to tell whether you or your child has ADHD?

While there’s no single, definitive test to diagnose ADHD in children or adults, a doctor can make a determination and rule out other problems like depression, anxiety, sleep disturbances, and certain types of learning disabilities.  Your doctor will likely schedule a medical exam that includes hearing and vision tests.    

There are 3 basic kinds of ADHD.

If the doctor determines that you or your child do indeed have ADHD, you’ll be diagnosed as having one of the three types of the disorder, which include:

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  • Predominantly Inattentive Presentation.  This diagnosis is given to people who are easily distracted often forget the steps of daily routines.   Organizing and completing projects is an ongoing  problem. They have trouble paying attention to details, following instructions, or keeping up with the thread of a conversation.
  • Predominantly Hyperactive-Impulsive Presentation. The person who gets this diagnosis tends to fidget and talk a lot.  They can’t sit still for long periods of time – or even long enough to finish a meal or homework assignment.  Younger children, may seem like they are in constant motion, running, jumping, or climbing during most every waking moment.  Impulsiveness is another indicator. Consequently, they may have accidents more often than other people.  
  • Combined Presentation. This diagnosis classic ADHD. It is given to children and adults who have equal measures of symptoms described in the both Inattentive Presentation and the Hyperactive-Impulsive Presentation.

 

What are the treatments for ADHD?

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Considering the downsides of ADHD when it comes to success in school, employment, and interpersonal relationships, treating the condition and managing the symptoms are essential.

The good news is that, although there is no cure for ADHD, the disruptive behaviors associated with the disorder can be reduced to the point where the child or adult can lead a productive life.  

Basically, there are two approaches to treating ADHD – Behavior Therapy and Medication.  Some people use one or the other.  For older children, most use a combination of both.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends parent training in behavior management for children younger than 6 years old.  For children over the age of 6, the AAP recommends using medication and behavior therapy together.  In both cases, treatment plans will include closely monitoring how well each component is working and making adjustments as needed.

  • Behavior Therapy. Because ADHD affects not only a child’s ability to pay attention or sit still at school, it also affects relationships with family and other children.  Children with ADHD often show behaviors that can be very disruptive to others. The goals of behavior therapy are to learn or strengthen positive behaviors and eliminate unwanted or problem behaviors. Behavior therapy for ADHD begins with parents but can also include educators in the classroom and individual sessions with outside therapists.

    For young children with ADHD, behavior therapy is the preferred form of treatment for a few reasons. Parent training in behavior management has been shown to work as well as medication for ADHD in young children.  Younger children tend to experience more side effects from medications than older children.   And perhaps most importantly, the long-term effects of ADHD medications on young children have not been well-studied.
  • Medication. For children ages 6 years and older, AAP recommends combining medication treatment with behavior therapy. There are several different types of FDA-approved medications include:

Stimulants, which are the best-known and most widely used ADHD medications. Between 70-80% of children with ADHD have fewer ADHD symptoms when taking these fast-acting prescription drugs.

Nonstimulants, which were approved for the treatment of ADHD in 2003. These don’t work as quickly as stimulants, but their effects can last up to 24 hours.

Medications can affect children and adults in a variety of different ways.  Like any prescription drug they all have side effects to one degree or another which can include: 

  • Sleep problems
  • Decreased appetite
  • Delayed growth
  • Headaches and stomachaches
  • Rebound irritability when the medication wears off
  • Tics
  • Moodiness

 

Weighted blankets are another way to help manage ADHD symptoms.

While behavior therapy, medications, and lifestyle adjustments are the go-to treatments for managing symptoms, using a weighted blanket for ADHD is another option you might want to try.

Many children and adults with ADHD have trouble calming down and managing their emotions which is also known as self regulating. For some, a weighted blanket may be helpful.

For over 20 years, occupational therapists have been using weighted blankets for kids and weighted blankets for adults to help them cope with sensory issues, anxiety, and other symptoms of ADHD. 

But the blankets aren’t just an OT tool anymore. They’ve moved into the mainstream and become hugely popular. That doesn’t make them any less effective as a way for kids to self-soothe, however.

 

What makes weighted blankets for ADHD effective?

Most everyone has enjoyed the comforting feeling of snuggling under a pile of blankets on a cold winter’s night.  Sure, the heavy covers keep you warm, but they offer something more. It’s something that has been scientifically proven to be calming and actually influences body chemistry and stimulates the production of certain hormones.

It’s called Deep Pressure Stimulation (DPS) or Deep Pressure Touch (DPT) and it refers to a firm but gentle squeeze that feels like a hug and naturally relaxes the nervous system.  This pressure can be applied in a variety of ways including massage, swaddling, or wearing a heavy vest that therapists sometimes have autistic children wear to create a sense of calmness.

Cool weighted blankets recreate that feeling you get under comforting pile of blankets or after a relaxing massage,   by using weights – ideally glass beads –sewn into pockets evenly distributed all over one single blanket.   The best weighted blanket for adults evenly applies a pre-set amount of pressure such as 10 lbs, 15 lbs, 20 lbs all over the body.  A general rule of thumb is that it should be 10% of a person’s body weight.

 

The result is deep, restful relaxation that leads to restorative sleep.

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Unlike a massage session, a weighted blanket provides deeply relaxing pressure continuously and this pressure can last as long as you like or need it and there is a scientific reason that it works.

Research has shown that DPS or DPT relaxes the nervous system by stimulating the release of serotonin.   Although it does many jobs throughout the body, in the brain, this natural neurotransmitter helps with mood regulation, memory, and sleep.

Therapists who use deep pressure touch stimulation and people who experience it through the use of a weighted blanket report a wide variety of benefits that include deeper, more restful sleep, improved focus, a greater sense of contentment, and reduced hypersensitivity to touch.  Other studies have indicated that weighted blankets slow the heart rate as well as lower blood pressure and anxiety levels.

It’s not hard to see that many of the benefits of weighted blankets directly address some of the most disruptive symptoms of ADHD by promoting the natural release of much needed serotonin that might otherwise have to come in the form of prescription drugs.   

Perhaps best of all, these soothing effects are delivered in the familiar form of a comforting anxiety blanket that you or your child can find refuge under night after night or retreat to for an instantly calming mental and physical break anytime during the day.