Is your mattress hurting your back?

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Most of us seldom give a second thought to our mattress, until that first morning when we wake up in pain.

Maureen Dwight

At first the discomfort often passes as we move through our day, however unheeded these early symptoms often keep getting worse. Suddenly we can’t straighten up, we can’t roll over in bed or we toss and turn all night looking for just an hour of uninterrupted sleep where the pain doesn’t wake us up. It’s at that moment we should ask: ” Is your mattress hurting your back?”

Although pain is a strong catalyst for change, the best time to look for a mattress is before you hurt.  Once you are in pain, the search begins to resemble the Princess (or Prince) and the pea fairytale.  Every small variation causes a problem, nothing feels right and no matter how good the mattress you still have trouble falling asleep or hurt by the end of the night.

Instead of waiting, learn to recognize the signs of needing a new mattress. Invest wisely and take your time as there is no piece of furniture in our home or office that we interface with as much as our bed.  Spending nearly 1/3rd of our day on a mattress with good spine support goes a long way to ensuring that you are rested and pain free.

  • We get asked about mattresses all the time (we even made a video about it!) Over the next two months, as part of our 35th year anniversary, we will be providing you with tips and information on pillows and mattresses for neck and back pain!
  • First up is advice on mattresses and  to learn about how your mattress might be contributing to your back pain as well as tips on how to make your mattress work for you. Additionally, watch this video for more information.
  • Help us Help You Please take this 2 minute survey to let us know which mattresses have helped your low back pain. In 2 weeks, we will post the results on Facebook and Instagram. To make sure you see the results, follow us!
  • Mattress survey

Next month: Join the conversation on pillows that work for neck pain!

Why is your mattress hurting your back

Mattress age:

Although most manufacturers suggest that their mattress is good for 20-25 year, in my experience we often need to replace it by the 15-year mark. Start to plan for the replacement around this time and you can take your time shopping and looking for sales

Mattress wear patterns:

Take a good look at your mattress at least twice a year. When you change your sheets or are flipping[1] it over, get down level with the top and eyeball the surface. If you can see divots in the top of the mattress where your hips or shoulders are positioned, or uneven wear when one person is heavier,  it’s time to go shopping.  Once these grooves are established it’s only a matter of time before the support comes out of the mattress.

Morning pain:

Take note if you wake up in pain or feel stiff in the morning, particularly if the kinks work out as the day goes on[2]. This can be a sign of improper support at night.

Your age:

The type of mattress can be influenced by our age. Many of us tolerate a harder mattress when we are younger.  Young back-pain sufferers often prefer to sleep on the floor but this can change as we age.  Most of us find the age process requires more cushioning in a lot of places i.e. chairs, mattresses, cars, etc.  Adding a pillow-top (see below) can be an effective solution.

How to purchase a new mattress?

  • Buy from a store where you can return it.  Even though I know what to look for, I took my most recent mattress back.  It felt great in the store, but at home I found that I skidded on it and felt like an ice skater all night.  It turned out that the surface tension was too high, and it was only after lying on it a few hours that I realized it wasn’t right for me.
  • Be prepared to spend some time.  This is an expensive purchase and you will be spending a lot of time with it.  Take a book and spend some time reading on the ones that feel best.

How firm should my mattress be? (Watch Video)

This is one of the most frequently asked questions.  Often people think the stiffer the better however too firm can be as much of a problem as too soft.  I typically suggest firm but not extra firm.  Your mattress should support you but also allow your hips and shoulder to sink in a bit. This mild adaptation to your shape is the reason for the individually pocketed coils and the memory foam.

If you are unsure whether a softer or harder mattress feels better, I tend to choose the firmer one.    Remember we can make a hard mattress softer but it’s difficult to make a soft mattress harder by adding some topping.  These days the manufacturers tend to avoid the old board under the mattress trick.  The mattress is designed to work with the box spring.

What about pillow topping or mattress toppers?

Don’t overdo the pillow top padding.  I find that around 2” of pillow top is usually enough. Much thicker and you can feel like you are being engulfed in the softness and don’t get enough support as the topping damps down.

There are several types of mattress toppers which make a hard mattress more comfortable.  Some of the hotels sell their own sleep systems, offering them after you have tried a night at their hotel or online.  Some of these products are amazing but you really don’t need to go to this extent.  Depending on what you like there are different types on the market.

  1. Foam toppers. These range from memory foam, to egg crate, to camping foam.  They are readily available from mattress shops, health care supply companies and camping equipment suppliers.  The downside for some is that they can get warm.  Some of the memory foam are using a technology to wick away heat but I have yet to hear how well this works from my patients. Be careful if you are sensitive to chemical smells.  Make sure you sniff the foam to check for off-gassing.  Many of the better brands are fine, but some are quite strong and the internet abounds with stories of people who could not live with the smell.
  1. Feather, sheep skin, etc. These other toppers are a matter of personal choice and many of my patients find these helpful.  Again some people find they get hot.  Other people tell me that they prefer the more natural materials.

Cottage mattresses

Let me finish with an entreaty for all of our cottage guests.  We Torontonians love our 2nd homes however our guest bedrooms often have mattresses which have gone through two or three generations. We don’t think about them – because we are not lying on them.  Or we rationalize that they don’t get much wear up north with only 3 seasons of use.  Remember that many cottage mattresses were not that good to start with and have a much shorter lifespan.  Take some time to look at these back room relics, especially if you want your guests to help with the cooking or stacking the firewood the next morning.

[1] Not all mattresses need to be flipped.  Your manufacturer will guide you.  If the pillow top is only on one side this is a good indication that you do not need to flip this mattress.

[2] If your mattress is good, this can also be a sign of too much sitting throughout the day.

This service pro­vides gen­eral infor­ma­tion and dis­cus­sion about therapy, health and related sub­jects. It is not meant to replace advice and/or treatment from your health care professional.