As Shakespeare wrote, “Sleep, perchance to dream…” is often an evasive quality for those who have chronic back pain. Patients are always asking if they should get a new mattress or bed to help with their back pain. Television commercials are always bombarding us with information that if your mattress is over eight years old, you need a new bed. If you decide to replace your mattress, there are so many to choose from. In reality, a good bed should last for years (my current bed is 15 years old) and the materials of today’s beds are meant to last a long time. The main issue is finding a good quality comfortable bed.
Back Pain – What To Look For In a Bed
If you have pain, the mattress should allow the spine to stay in a neutral position while lying down, usually on one’s back or side. The spine has several natural curves from the head to the pelvis. Unfortunately, some people have more curvature than others, but no one has a flat back. The mattress and its cushioning should conform and support the curves of the body so that they stay in a neutral and unstressed position. The bed topper and the central bed material should provide this support comfortably.
Over the last ten to twenty years, three new types of mattresses have taken hold; memory foam, latex, and adjustable airbeds. A combination of these technologies is often used together to develop the best overall experience. Basic mattresses are a core of some type of foam rubber that have layers of more expensive latex foam, cool memory foam and some sort of fiber toppers. Airbeds have a core designed with an adjustable air bladder and then often have similar toppers as other mattresses. Each combination has its advantages.
Memory foam mattresses and toppers have been gaining popularity over the recent years. It was first developed for the space program, and now has many slightly different formulations. Different densities of foam now are layered together and respond to weight and temperature in order to contour to that shape and also absorb motion. Since they are dependent on the body temperature to mold and shape to form, they tend to be warm to sleep upon. If you are always to warm, they may not be best choice unless it is made of newer technology that keeps one cool.
Latex mattresses are made of natural or synthetic foam rubber. They tend to be very uniform in support and may be a bit bouncy. They tend to be a bit firmer overall in support. If you like a firm bed, latex mattresses will definitely provide this type of support.
Air mattresses are beds that use an adjustable air chamber system to support a frame with foam layers surrounding it. Instead of the old coil spring mattress with one level of stiffness, the core is now a sophisticated, adjustable air chamber. The mattress then conforms and places even pressures on all areas of the body. King or queen mattresses have different adjustments for each side of the bed, so if partners like different settings, that is possible. Further, if you like to change the hardness of the bed at times, it is easy to fine-tune the stiffness to your position or preferences.
What’s The Best?
The picture of the best mattress often becomes somewhat more confusing. Many mattresses are a combination of multiple forms. The core of the mattress is either coil springs, latex foam, or an air chamber with choices of multiple types of cool memory foam and latex comfort foam, with some cloth/fiber padding as topper material that is about 3 to 4 inches thick above the core material. The combination of core and topper determine the comfort for each individual.
The last subject that arises with beds is the adjustable frame bed. Some of the beds have heads that elevate, adjusting to different angles, some have head and legs that have adjustable positions. These beds have traditionally been for people who have breathing problems at night and need the head elevated, or those who have difficulty moving in and out of bed. Some people like these beds if they read or watch television in bed. Generally, the adjustable bed is a luxury, using a couple of extra pillows can be a cheaper and easier solution than a fancy adjustable bed frame.
Finding the right mattress can be a challenge. At this time, I advise that you make sure the topper on the mattress is high quality, is comfortable and it should contour to your spinal curves while on your back or sleeping on your side. The core material may be a personal preference, but with an air chamber that is adjustable, this allows you to change your mind and make changes as your sleeping situation may change. All good mattress seem to be expensive. Choose wisely, keeping cost, comfort and future flexibility in mind.
Thomas Cohn, MD
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