The Supreme Guide to the Perfect Mattress for Your Back Pain

Businesswoman with back pain

Back pain is an all-too-common complaint. In fact, eight out of 10 Americans will have back pain at some point during their lifetime. Back pain is a primary reason why people visit their doctor and miss work. If you’re one of the millions of Americans suffering, you may be wondering, “What is the best mattress for back pain?”

The National Sleep Foundation notes that a good mattress will last about 10 years, so if you’re sleeping on an old, saggy mattress, the answer could be yes. Still, before you run out and buy a new mattress, you should do your homework. Consider not only what brand and type of mattress to buy, but also what really may be at the heart of your pain.

Is It Really My Mattress Causing My Back Pain?

back pain caused by mattress

If your back pain wakes you up in the middle of the night or is worse when you first rise in the morning, your mattress could be the culprit, or at least contributing to your discomfort. If you can’t recall the last time you replaced your mattress and/or you almost get swallowed up by the growing sinkhole in the middle, it’s probably time to buy a new one. Mattresses also collect dust mites, fungus and other germs that can aggravate allergies and impact your sleep quality.

Keep in mind: there is no such thing as a universal best mattress for back pain. The right sleeping surface will vary from person to person. The body also changes over time, so a mattress that once gave you satisfying beauty rest may no longer do so in the long run.

When you do decide to replace your mattress, don’t be afraid to act like Goldilocks. Take your time and test things out. Many stores will let you lie down on their mattresses. Be sure to lie down and relax in your normal sleeping position, and yes, go ahead and bring your own pillow from home. Some stores will even let you trial run a mattress and return it if it doesn’t suit your needs.

The Way You Sleep Could Also Be Contributing To Your Back Pain

woman sleeping in hammock

Back pain can often be caused by keeping our bodies in either a forward bend (flexion) or backward bend (extension) too much. This pain may be reduced or eliminated with exercise that counteracts the forward or back-bend position.

If your sleeping posture causes your spine to be positioned in the same direction that leads to discomfort during the day, then the position could inflame your pain and wake you during the night. For example, if pain improves during the day by bending backwards, then sleeping in the fetal position, which bends the spine forward, is probably not a good idea. If bending forward is what relieves your pain, you should avoid sleeping on your stomach, as this position causes the spine to bend backwards a little.

The Ideal Sleeping Position to Help Prevent Back Pain

woman-sleeping-on-side

For most people, sleeping on their side with a small pillow or roll underneath their waist will keep the spine straight. This is the best sleeping position, as the support at the waist keeps the spine from sagging down toward the mattress. Sleeping with a small pillow or roll beneath the waist is more beneficial for back pain than sleeping with a pillow between the knees.

Contrary to what you may have heard, sleeping on your stomach is not necessarily a bad position. If sitting aggravates your pain, and standing and walking decreases your pain, sleeping on your stomach could be helpful. However, if the opposite is true (pain is better with sitting, but worse when standing and walking), the fetal position may be more helpful. Sleeping on your back with pillows under your head, shoulder and knees is another option you may want to try.

The Best Mattress for Back Pain: Firm vs. Soft

mattress in dark bedroom

Most of us spend nearly one-third of our lives lying in bed, so choosing the right mattress can be critical to managing or preventing back pain. Getting the z’s your body needs depends on a variety of factors—from room temperature to lifestyle habits to daily stress—but to help ensure adequate rest, your mattress is your foundation.

If you’ve ever gone mattress shopping, you already know the brands, types and styles available today border on overwhelming. So how do you pick the best mattress for back pain?

Your personal preferences should ultimately guide your decision. There is no single mattress brand, style or type that will work for everyone who has (or doesn’t have) back pain. Any mattress that enables somebody to sleep well, pain-free and without stiffness is the right mattress for that person. That being said, here’s a good rule of thumb: the mattress you choose should support your body in a neutral position (where your spine has a slight curvature, and your buttocks, heels, shoulders and head are in proper alignment). The right amount of back support can also help you avoid muscle soreness in the morning.

While there isn’t much clinical data available on mattresses, researchers in Spain studied individuals with long-term back pain and found that those who slept on a medium-to-firm mattress had less back pain than those who slept on a softer mattress. Therefore, a firmer bed could be a better choice for people with back pain, particularly lower back pain.

Again, when you’re sleeping, there are no significant external forces on your spine, so although a firmer mattress can give more support, it isn’t necessary to sleep on one if it just doesn’t feel comfortable for you.

What You Need to Know About Mattresses Before You Buy One

mattress in bedroom

Support, conformability and firmness. These three terms can help guide you when it comes to pinpointing the mattress that’s right for you.

Support

How well does the mattress keep your body on a flat and level plane instead of allowing part of your body to be lower or higher than the rest of your body? Support could be a key factor in preventing and relieving pain, especially back pain.

Conformability

How well does the mattress conform to the contours of your body? Good conformability means all of your body is supported equally by your mattress. Gaps in support can cause one part of the body, such as the lower spine, to be placed in a stressed and an unnatural position.

Firmness

Medium-firm mattresses tend to be firm enough to provide support, but soft enough to offer conformability and pressure-point relief. They are often the most effective in preventing/reducing overall pain and discomfort. Firm mattresses have support, but not much conformability. Mattresses that are too firm may cause discomfort as a result of severely felt pressure points. Soft mattresses provide good conformability and pressure-point relief, but may lack enough support, which could trigger back pain.

Which Is the Best Mattress for Back Pain? Spring, Memory Foam, Latex or Air

best mattress for back pain

To begin answering this question, let’s briefly review the four popular mattress choices:

Innerspring

These remain the most widely used mattresses, and firmer versions can be good for people suffering from back pain. Innerspring mattresses offer support through coil springs. On top of the individually enclosed coils you’ll find a broad range of materials added for comfort, including pillow, latex and memory foam. Remember, more coils doesn’t necessarily equal more comfort. The good news is there are plenty of innerspring mattress choices on the market, ranging in firmness to fluffiness. The choices can and do accommodate nearly every preference and budget. There isn’t a direct correlation between price and comfort; however, it’s wise to steer clear from the cheapest innerspring mattress, as there may not be enough springs and cushion to provide adequate support.

Memory Foam

Memory foam mattresses are made of layers of different densities of foam. These mattresses respond to weight and temperature, and mold to the specific shape of your body. When your weight shifts throughout the night, memory foam will mold to the shape of your body, reducing pressure points and easing pain. Memory foam mattresses also help absorb the movement from a tossing-and-turning partner. Because they are temperature sensitive (softening and molding with your body heat), some who have purchased them have complained the mattresses make them feel too hot during the night. Others have also reported the mattresses emit an unpleasant chemical smell.

Latex

Made from natural or synthetic rubber, latex mattresses provide very firm, bouncy support that’s uniform throughout the bed. Unlike memory foam, latex pushes back, and therefore, may offer added support. A latex mattress (or latex mattress topper) can be great for soothing back pain, as it delivers a unique combination of comfort and support. Latex, however, may not be the right option for you if you don’t like the feel of snoozing on a pretty firm mattress.

Air

High-end air beds (such as Sleep Number beds, not the camping versions you blow up for your out-of-town guests during a Thanksgiving visit) look like an innerspring mattress, but use air-filled chambers rather than coils. They are then covered by a foam layer on top. These types of air beds have been routinely used for patients who have spinal-cord injuries and can’t move for long periods. The firmness on each side of these beds can be adjusted to suit individual tastes. For example, if you have back pain, your side can be made firmer than your partner’s side for additional support. If, however, you fail to make the air bed firm enough, you could wake up with a backache. A cheaper air mattress could also pop up on one side when you sit on the opposite end. To avoid this problem, you should consider a mattress with multiple air chambers.

No matter what type of surface you sleep on—innerspring, air or sofa bed—it’s crucial to remember that in order to feel refreshed and recharged, you must get enough rest. No bed is going to save you or your back if you’re only grabbing four hours of sleep per night.

What to Do If Your Back Pain Is Severe and Won’t Go Away

Doctor-with-stethoscope

Don’t ignore your pain or simply blame it on your saggy mattress. Visit your doctor if you’re experiencing:

  • Numbness or tingling
  • Severe pain that doesn’t improve with rest
  • Pain after a fall or an injury
  • Pain in addition to any of the following symptoms: trouble urinating, weakness, leg numbness, fever and unexplained weight loss