The best type of mattress for a bad back

A pillowtop mattress; Jeffrey M. Vinocur; Wikimedia Commons

According to Dr. Nancy Synderman, NBC's chief medical editor, over 65 million people suffer from back pain. In fact, the National Institutes of Health states that back problems are the second most common reason people visit their doctor, only slightly behind seasonal colds and flus. Orthopaedic specialists and doctors often suggest patients change their mattresses as an effective way to help with some of the pain of chronic back troubles.


J. Talbot Sellers, DO of suggests that if a mattress doesn't provide adequate support for your back, it can significantly worsen back strain and pain. By sleeping on an uncomfortable mattress, you might further force your spine out of alignment and reinforce a poor resting posture that can negatively impact your comfort and mobility. An uncomfortable mattress can also further impact your health by causing you to lose sleep, which makes it harder for your body to adequately rest and rejuvenate.


For years, doctors suggested that back pain sufferers sleep on a firm but not rigidly hard mattress to support their spine, and a research report detailing these findings was even presented at the 1996 Orthopedic Convention. A 2003 Spanish research study cast doubt upon this conventional wisdom by finding that a medium firm mattress was the best choice for alleviating back pain. According to the Kovacs Foundation, which led the study, participants who slept on a medium firm mattress reported more improvement from their back pain than those who slept on a firm one.


There are a countless number of mattress choices available, many of which are made of premium materials such as latex or memory foam or that have extra pillow tops or cushioning. A salesperson might try to convince you that the expensive memory foam mattresses will offer the best back support, but if it doesn't make you comfortable it is unlikely to be a wise purchase. According to Shape Health and Wellness Centres in Toronto, there is not any one particular type of mattress that works for everybody's back pain. You might also find that the most expensive mattress isn't necessarily the best fit for you and that spending more money may not guarantee you will find the perfect mattress for your back.

Expert Insight

In order to find the mattress that is the best fit for you personally, Clete A. Kushida, MD, PhD, a spokesperson for the American Association of Sleep Medicine and the director of the Stanford Center for Human Sleep Research in California offers these suggestions: "Lie on your side. If your shoulders and hips are sinking, if you feel your spine is not aligned, it's probably too soft. If you feel pain and discomfort, it's probably too firm." Herr also recommends shopping for a mattress later in the day since you are often more energetic and back pain and strain is lessened in the early morning. He also advocates purchasing a mattress from a store that offers refunds for returns within 30 days so that you will have an ample opportunity to see how it affects your back.


Once you have found the perfect mattress for your back, you can help keep it in great condition by turning or repositioning your mattress every six months to ensure it wears evenly. Make sure that your repositioning routine includes turning it 180 degrees as well as flipping it lengthwise. This will help prevent your mattress from developing uneven spots that don't provide adequate support for your back and hips. The Better Sleep Council recommends buying the mattress and box springs as a set and to avoid using a mattress with a box springs that doesn't match since it might decrease the life of the new mattress.

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