How to Pick the Right Mattress and Avoid Back Pain

Waking up in pain, groggy from a poor night’s sleep, can affect your mood, performance, and your health.

Chronic back pain and poor sleep are two incredibly common, well, bedfellows.

There are many different facts that can explain poor sleep and if you think your mattress has something to do with that, it might be time to start looking for a new one.

But beds are huge investments, so before you do, consider the following:

There is no perfect bed

“There is no best mattress. It probably varies enormously as to what you are used to,”.

Humans spend about one-third of their lives sleeping, but we still haven’t figured out what an ideal mattress should feel like. That’s because there likely isn’t a single type that would be perfect for everyone.

In the past, doctors have recommended hard mattresses, but more recent surveys and studies have increasingly pointed toward medium firm mattresses as the best for sleep comfort, quality, and spinal alignment.

One report from 2011 found that when individuals were given seven beds of different firmness to try for a month, there was no consensus about which was the best.

Unfortunately, terms like “hard” and “medium firm” tend to come with varying degrees of subjectivity, meaning one company’s “medium firm” mattress may feel nothing like another company’s.

“It’s fairly remarkable that there is not any consistency in the literature where people have looked at it and said ‘this is the kind of bed you need,’” said Feinsilver.

Products like the Sleep Number Bed, which allow for complete control and variability of bed firmness highlight just how subjective the ideal sleeping surface should feel. In some models, two people can sleep on the same bed with each half tuned to each individual’s own specifications.

Mattresses and back pain

Even if there isn’t any real consensus on what makes the perfect mattress, we should understand the relationship between beds and back pain, right?

Not as much as you’d think.

“Picking out a mattress can be tricky. Generally the mattress shouldn’t be too soft or too firm,” said Kevin M. Cerrone, DPT, director of Rehabilitation & Orthopaedic Services at Northwell Health’s Huntington Hospital, Huntington, NY.

Again, studies have leaned toward medium firmness mattress as being generally better for lower back pain.

A Canadian report from 2014 found “limited conclusive evidence” that different mattress types could be used for the treatment of back and neck pain, and that hard mattresses were least effective in treating lower back pain.

Choosing a mattress for you

Ultimately finding the bed that works for you will have to do with your own preferences and ideal comfort. So, take a few steps to ensure that your purchase will be a meaningful one.

Consider a few of the following factors when buying a mattress:

•             Take your mattress for a test run. Don’t just snooze for a few minutes on the showroom floor. Check the return policy. Try your bed for a month or however long you can, and if you find out it’s not helping your sleep or back pain, just return it. Some studies have shown that improved sleep on a new mattress may just be a placebo effect.

•             Consider your body temperature. People don’t sleep well when they’re hot, so keeping cool is important for rest, said Feinsilver. If you live in a warm climate or just find your bedroom to get hot at night, finding a mattress with a breathable material is important.

•             Think about how you sleep. Your preferred position while sleeping affects how your weight is distributed across your body, joints, and bed. Choosing a mattress with the appropriate firmness for your sleeping style can help to alleviate pain and soreness.

“If the mattress is too firm it causes excessive pressure on certain parts of your body and if too soft it allows your body to sink into bad postures. A medium firm mattress is best allowing your shoulders and hips to sink slightly,” said Cerrone.

Understanding how you sleep can also give you better insight into improving your posture at night, potentially meaning less aches and pains in the morning.

Check out Healthline’s guide to sleeping positions to help with spinal alignment and back pain.

Who knows, maybe you won’t have to buy a new mattress after all.

The bottom line

Scientific consensus on what makes an ideal mattress has generally been inconsistent, although recent studies have suggested a “medium firm” mattress could be helpful to alleviate lower back pain.

Mattress firmness is largely subjective and can vary from one company to the next.

Your own preferences and ideas of comfort should inform any potential mattress purchase.

Before buying a new mattress try improving your sleeping posture at night to alleviate pain.

If you must buy a new mattress, make sure to try it for as long as possible and return it if it doesn’t improve your pain or sleep quality.

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