How to Find the Best Mattress for Your Back
Sick of tossing, turning, reconfiguring your partner, pet and 6 pillows just to get a little support for your aching back? It may be time for a new mattress. Finding the one that brings more sweet dreams (and less elbow jabs) is a wellness investment you won’t regret. After all, we spend almost a third of our lives in bed and need comfort and spinal support for (ideally) eight hours every night.
But what is the perfect mattress?
That depends on what type of sleeper you are. Few of us have GoldiLocks’ super-power of knowing which mattress is “just right” upon a momentary snuggle. In one study people slept in seven beds of varying firmness for a month but found no consensus on which was the best for back pain, neck pain and shoulder pain!
Whether you’re a “princess-who-can-feel-the-pea-under-10-mattresses” type sleeper or a “Sleepy the Dwarf” type sleeper who can grab zzzs anywhere (but has no idea what aches and pains await upon waking), sleep research has shown that a new mattress can improve sleep quality while reducing back pain, discomfort, and stress-related symptoms.
Why Your Mattress May Not Be Supporting Your Spine
There is no doubt that adequate sleep plays a critical role in helping us reach our wellness goals. It reduces our risk of heart disease, lowers our blood pressure, regenerates our cells and muscular tissue and helps us process the day’s events.
If you’re sleeping on a mattress that offers nothing but aches and pains, it may be because it’s too old. A traditional innerspring mattress lasts 7 years on average; a memory foam mattress for up to 10 years; a latex mattress for up to 12 years.
You may also have chosen comfort over support. Lying on a mattress for 20 minutes in a store isn’t enough to know whether it will suit you — that takes an average of 30 nights. Choosing the right mattress requires understanding what your body type and optimal sleeping position require.
Whatever your unique needs, sleeping on an old mattress can:
- Increase your stress levels
- Expose you to millions of dust mites that may cause allergies
- Lead to chronic low back pain
- Disrupt your sleep and weaken your immune system
6 Criteria When Choosing the Best Mattress to Support Your Spine
Before you start Googling and mall hopping, make sure you’re shopping for these qualities in your next mattress:
- Pressure relief: The amount of pressure a mattress puts on your joints depends on the structure and sensitivity of your joints. Your shoulders and hips are prone to high pressure, so you’ll want to find a mattress that doesn’t put pressure on those joints, as well as your spine.
- Spine alignment: Notice how well a mattress keeps your spine in a straight line from your tailbone up through your neck. This is critical for pain management, as sleep posture is just as important as waking posture. If your mattress ‘hammocks’ you (creates a pinch point in your lower lumbar spine) it may cause chronic pain.
- Support: Find something that evenly supports your body weight. How much weight can the mattress’ foundation hold? Can it support your full body evenly, in any position? A mattress that loses support can throw your spine out of alignment, which may soon have you seeking pain management for back pain, neck pain or leg pain.
- Firmness: Firmness is the pushback you feel from your mattress at certain pressure points. When choosing a mattress avoid the sink factor. A super soft mattress that dips in the middle throws your spine out of natural alignment.
- Contrary to the firmer-is-better mantra of slick YouTube reviewers and savvy billboard marketers, sleeping on a rock-hard mattress is not going to power your most spine supportive hours.
- Edge support in a mattress: If your partner, pet or nightmare prone child take up a good portion of the bed, you’ll appreciate a mattress with robust edge support. It provides a little additional help getting in and out of bed. Sitting on the mattress’s edge will give you an idea of whether the support is adequate.
- Motion transfer: If you’re sharing a bed, go mattress shopping with your partner. Does the mattress move when your partner moves on It? This will help determine how well a mattress reduces motion transfer when sleeping with your spouse, children, or pets.
How Your Sleeper Type Should Drive Your Mattress Choice
To a large extent, your anatomy determines how your mattress impacts your spinal alignment. A pear-shaped side sleeper may need a softer mattress to accommodate the curviness, as may a back sleeper with a hyper- or hypo-lordotic lumbar curve. Both need extra support in the lumbar region but may not realize it before being examined and diagnosed by a reputable chiropractor.
Your preferred sleeping position affects how your weight is distributed across your body, joints, and mattress. You can alleviate back pain, neck pain, shoulder pain and body wide discomfort by choosing a firmness appropriate for your sleeping style:
Typically require a softer, plusher mattress that conforms to natural curves (especially hips and shoulders). It allows heavier areas to sink into the mattress, maintaining proper spine alignment while relieving stress on the body.
Slide your hand under the small of your back while lying down on a mattress (the curve of your lower back). The mattress may be overly firm if your hand readily glides under your lower back curve. The mattress is probably too soft if your hand doesn’t slide through at all.
Sleep on both their back and their sides benefit from a mattress that’s not too firm and not too soft. A mattress that’s too firm causes excessive pressure on these areas and one that’s too soft allows the body to sink into bad postures. Medium firmness is best, however, one brand’s “firm” is another brand’s “medium firm,” so you’ll have to snuggle in and judge for yourself.
Should try to change their sleeping style. Sleeping on your stomach — especially if you already have back pain, neck pain, shoulder pain or joint issues — forces you to twist your neck and your head to the side so you can breathe, which can decrease your natural neck curvature, compressing one side of your neck while elongating the other. The torque this position applies to the spine can also cause lower back pain.
Considerations to Make Before Committing to a New Mattress
Before investing in a new mattress your spine will be relying on for potentially the next 10 years, observe and consider your body temperature. If you don’t sleep well when hot, or if you live in a warm climate (or extra warm bedroom) consider shopping for mattress made of breathable material like latex foam and hyper-elastic polymer.
Always check the manufacturer’s return policy so you can take your mattress for a test run that’s much longer than a showroom floor snooze. Try your bed for a month or however long the brand will allow, and if you discover it’s not improving your sleep or relieving your back pain, return it.
Now that you know how critical it is to match your mattress to your sleeping style, anatomy, and potential spinal misalignment, consider getting an evaluation from a reputable DC before starting to shop — discovering the state your spinal curvature may influence your decision.
Ready to learn how our Doctors of Chiropractic can help you improve your spine health and sleep quality?
Check in with your nearest Chiro One doc at one of our welcoming open-plan clinics across the country. They’ll perform a thorough exam to investigate the root cause of your pain, then personalize your care plan — a combination of gentle chiropractic adjustments and active therapies to help you feel better longer.
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- Hogan, S. O., Edinger, J. D., Bieler, G. S., and Krystal, A., D. (2011). Choosing the best mattress: An experiment in testing whether individuals choose a bed that leads to improved sleep (RTI Press publication No. RR-0016-1108). Research Triangle Park, NC: RTI Press. Retrieved [date] from RTI.org
- Jacobson BH, Boolani A, Smith DB. Changes in back pain, sleep quality, and perceived stress after introduction of new bedding systems. J Chiropr Med. 2009 Mar;8(1):1-8. doi: 10.1016/j.jcm.2008.09.002. PMID: 19646380; PMCID: PMC2697581