Some like their sleeping mattress to be firm, some like it soft, some prefer it to be filled with water and some had just as soon sleep on the floor. To confuse things further, there are claims that adjustable beds, sleep number beds, or memory foam mattresses are best at achieving that elusive great night’s sleep. Almost everyone has heard that a firm mattress is the best type for those with back problems. Is there scientific proof for this or is this another medical myth? Let’s look at some of the published reports pertaining to the type of mattress that we chose to sleep on, with special consideration for those with chronic back pain.
In spite of spending about one-third of our lives lying on mattresses, there has been relatively little scientific study of mattress design. In describing the ideal sleeping surface, Cornell University’s Ergonomics group recommends that a mattress:
1) Conforms to the spine’s natural curves and to keep the spine in alignment when you lay down.
2) Distributes pressure evenly across the body to help circulation, decrease body movement, and enhance sleep quality.
3) Minimizes the transfer of movement from one sleeping partner to the other.
4) Has perimeter edge support.
The Cornell group, however, was unwilling to go out on a limb to suggest one brand or type of mattress over another, since sleeping comfort is to a large degree a personal preference.
Some of the more interesting (and expensive) mattresses on the market, are those made with NASA-developed Visco elastic material that conforms to the body. The Tempur-Pedic line of mattresses is made with this so-called “memory foam”, touted to relieve pressure points and lead to a better night’s sleep. While consumer approval of these mattresses is high, scientific evidence of their superiority in those without special concerns such as diabetes or arthritis is lacking. There is, however, scientific evidence that “memory foam” mattresses are effective in reducing pressure sores in those confined to bed.
One very interesting study reported in the medical journal, Applied Ergonomics, challenged the notion that firmer is better. In this study, medium firm mattresses specifically modified with foam or latex based on sleeping position was found to reduce discomfort and to increase sleep quality in those with chronic back pain. Of course not many of us have the opportunity to consult with an ergonomic expert to design a “prescribed” mattress.
Owner experience data reported by the claimed “unbiased and independent”; consumer web site, Sleep Like the Dead, indicates that most people rate memory foam, air, and latex mattresses highest in owner satisfaction, while innerspring mattresses overall rate the lowest. They also found from owner’s experience that greater the sagging depth of a mattress, the more likely the mattress will cause back discomfort.
Choosing the ideal mattress seems to be a highly individual consideration. Rather than taking the advice of a review or someone else’s word, spend some time trying out mattresses where they are sold. Don’t feel self-conscious about lying down for a few minutes on each one that you are considering. Some mattress outlets even offer a 30-90 day return warranty if once you get the mattress home you find that it’s just not right for you. One-third of your life is too long a time to spend on an uncomfortable or, worse yet, harmful mattress.