Updated: Feb 1, 2022
This is a question that I get asked by patients ALL.THE.TIME. The answer is not so straight forward, as there are different body types, preferences, and history of injury, back pain, surgery, etc.
However, there are some considerations that are true across the board and these I want to talk about as they can make a significant difference in your back pain when you sleep (this even applies for neck pain as well!)
Before we get into the types of mattresses, how do you know if you need to change your mattress in the first place? Here are some common signs that it is time to find a new surface to sleep on:
You wake up sore/stiff or are tossing/turning for no apparent reason
There is an obvious sag or imprint in the mattress of where you lay
You feel lumps/bumps when you run your hand over your mattress
You feel your partner’s movements (excessively) during sleep
You hear more squeaking or noises of the mattress when you move around in bed
The mattress industry generally cites the lifespan of a mattress at 6 to 10 years (average 8 years). However, many factors can go into this such as:
The material the mattress is made out of
Weight/size of the person lying on it
Number of people/pets sleeping in the bed
How frequently the mattress is rotated or flipped
Significant gain or loss in weight of the sleeper
Children or pets (or adults) using it as a trampoline
Worsening allergies for no distinct reason
These factors can increase the wear of your mattress and cause it to lose support. When this happens, it is called the “hammock effect”. The hammock effect is just what is sounds like-your body position goes from being in a supported position to one where your hips drop below your shoulders and feet.
This causes your spine to fall into a sling position where there is little support and increased strain over the muscles, ligaments, and disks of the spine. The hammock effect is a significant cause of neck and back pain with sleeping.
Hammocking is fine if you are having a nap on a tropical beach on vacation (or anywhere really), but not a good option for your restorative sleeping surface.
So, you have decided it is definitely time to look into a new mattress, but what kind should you buy?
There are many choices for mattress materials which include: innerspring, foam (memory, conventional, & hybrids), air, latex, and water.
A small study was done to look at the impact of sleep quality on newer vs. older mattresses.1 The average age of the mattresses reviewed in the study was 9.5 years. This is the time frame the average American keeps their mattress.
It found that both back pain symptoms and overall sleep quality was significantly improved after changing to a new mattress regardless of the type/material of the new mattress.
The same study was in agreement with several others in its findings that medium-firm mattresses relieved back pain most significantly, regardless of mattress type.
Here are some pros and cons of the different types of mattresses:
In choosing a new mattress, there are a lot of personal preferences that come into play such as price, material, customizability, and just what feels good to you.
So, at the end of the day the single greatest factor that impacted back pain with sleeping was the AGE OF THE MATTRESS.
Secondly, was the firmness. Medium-firm mattresses showed the greatest improvement in back pain and sleep quality overall.
There are some common observations and reports that I have heard from patients over the years and will share them here. As I said, these are my observations and not necessarily backed by any study:
May memory foam mattresses start out comfortable, but lose their support early on
Memory foam mattresses are hot
Innerspring and air mattresses hold their support structure well and lose firmness more slowly
Air mattresses can be helpful for couples who are significantly different in size, as each side can be adjusted. This can be helpful when you have a difference in preference of support
Any mattress that provides support for your spine and you sleep well on, is the mattress for you! (just say no to hammocking)
So, there you have it. As much specific information that has been scientifically determined regarding which mattress is the best. As I said, the answer is not straight forward because- there is not one.
Just as there is many mattress choices, there are many individual bodies and these differences should be taken into account.
However, keep in mind 1) the age of your mattress 2) the firmness level and 3) the degree of support and then go with whatever blows up your skirt.
If you take care of these 3 first, then you should be feeling rested and bright eyed in the morning!
If you want any further tips and info on how to relieve your pain and get stronger safely, you can sign up and access my free resources here.
Stay Well & Feel Good,
Always consult your physician before beginning any exercise program. This general information is not intended to diagnose any medical condition or to replace your healthcare professional. Consult with your healthcare professional to design an appropriate exercise prescription. If you experience any pain or difficulty with these exercises, stop and consult your healthcare provider.
Hi! I am Dr. Kim MacDonald. I am a physical therapist who specializes in empowering my patients to optimize how they move their bodies and improve their ability to do the things they love regardless of age, experience, or capabilities.
My experience in the health care field allows me to teach the tools you need to ensure that you are working safely to improve your pain and maximize your physical potential.
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If you are having back pain or sciatica and cannot get relief, check out my quick Soothe Your Spine video course on what you should be doing to reduce your pain