Deep pressure, or the mechanism behind weighted blankets, is a therapeutic touch that many are trying to understand. The therapeutic benefits of weighted blankets broadly include sleep improvement and anxiety reduction. Though these findings are repeated in the literature, there is still much unknown about how deep pressure affects us. We do not know how therapeutic touch can benefit various presenting problems. As always, we aim to provide objective information about weighted blankets. The following article will outline recent research that operationalizes deep pressure, the immediate benefits of deep touch, and the proposed preferred amount of pressure.
Different types of Therapeutic Touch
There are three types of identified therapeutic touch: Social touch, CT touch, and Massage therapy. They all have a role in what makes us feel good.
Social touch has commonly been studied during infancy through hugging and swaddling, but the benefits of social touch do not dissipate with age. For example, several sets of researchers have found myriad benefits with social touch in adults, including increased emotional regulation, stress reduction, pain reduction, positive affect, fewer infections, and increased empathy, to name a few.
CT Touch could also be classified as social touch, but it’s much lighter. Examples of CT Touch include soft touches or caressing. Similar to social touch, CT Touch also has documented benefits in adults, including slowing of heart rate, pain reduction, increasing smiling, arousal, and lust, relationship satisfaction, to name a few.
Finally, Massage therapy is a therapeutic touch that uses deep pressure and has displayed benefits in adults such as reduced pain, relationship satisfaction, and decreased physiological arousal.
Across these three types of touch, research has struggled to pinpoint the mechanism of action because they all involve a social (human) touch. Simply put, the biggest difference between these three identified forms of touch is the pressure and position of the application. While social touch involves the whole body (i.e., hugs), massage therapy focuses on a single part of the body at a time. Moreover, CT touch focuses on a single location but involves lighter pressure. To understand the benefits of various forms of pressure, researchers need to remove the human component.
When considering weighted blankets, the mechanism of action likely involves a combination of massage therapy and social touch. Our rationale for sticking weighted blankets into those categories is that weighted blankets swaddle like social touch and apply deep pressure like in massage therapy.
Immediate Benefits of Deep Touch
Therapeutic touch, such as deep pressure, has mental health benefits documented throughout the research, including anxiety symptoms and depression reduction. Recent research by Edwards et al. (2020) has explored the effects of various forms of deep pressure on interoception and heart rate variability.
We’ve written an article on interoception previously, but in sum, it is defined as one’s ability to tune into their inner bodily sensations (e.g., heart rate). Interoception, or one’s ability to predict heart rate, is related to emotional and painful experiences. Moreover, a higher heart rate is related to increased sympathetic arousal (i.e., fight or flight). Previous research has found deep pressure reduces sympathetic arousal and increases parasympathetic response. However, too much pressure can cause the opposite effects and initiate or increase sympathetic Results from the research found increased interoception with deep pressure touch.
How much Pressure is Enough
Recent research by Case et al. (2021) explored deep pressure to determine which area of the body was most preferred and what amount of pressure felt the best. The researchers created a pressurized sleeve that produced 30, 50, 70, or 90 mmHg of pressure to the wrist, forearm, upper arm, ankle, or calf of the participant.
The researchers found that 70 mmHg was the most preferred pressure amount for all body locations except the upper arm, which had mixed preferences. The findings were not significant, meaning there was no substantial difference in reported enjoyment with location on the body and amount of pressure. Although the sample size was 15, this small sample size may have contributed to the lack of significance. Still, the information is helpful when exploring deep pressure’s benefits. In terms of pounds, 70 mmHg equates to about 1.35 pounds per square inch. This seems heavy; if we mathematically look at these findings and relate them to a weighted blanket weight.