For those out there that suffer from both overnight and morning aches and pains, a new mattress could be the cure. A properly-designed mattress can support bad backs and injured joints to prevent pain. However, it seems like every mattress on the market today is advertised as “orthopedic”- including the ones many out there are currently suffering on.
The term “orthopedic mattress” was coined in the 1950s, after studies of how the joints and bones work suggested that specially-designed mattresses could prevent morning back pain. The first orthopedic mattresses on the market were, indeed, designed followed orthopedic principles to be therapeutic for bad backs. However, after mattress manufacturers noticed that these mattresses were selling well, they started calling all mattresses “orthopedic.” After all, there are no government regulations or standards in place to prove that one mattress is better than any other. There are also no regulations or standards for the language mattress manufacturers can use to describe their products. Essentially, the term “orthopedic mattress” is being used as a marketing term.
However, there are actually orthopedic mattresses in existence. Most people have heard that sleeping on a hard floor is good for back pain, and so they mistakenly believe that an orthopedic mattress should be hard as a rock. Scientific studies have, however, found that extra-firm mattresses are not the best choice for back pain sufferers. For example, a blinded study of over 300 back-pain sufferers reported that a mattress of medium-firmness was best for relieving back pain. The patients were given mattresses to sleep on, but were not told what type of mattress they have received. Their back pain was assessed after they had slept on the mattresses for around 3 months. Very soft mattresses are the worst for back pain, but extra-firm mattresses were no good either.
Advocates of extra-firm mattresses or sleeping on the floor are overlooking two principles of orthopedics: pressure points, and the natural curvature of the back. When lying on a hard surface, the parts of the body in contact with the surface are essentially squashed by the body’s weight. This can cause considerable discomfort and even tissue damage. To avoid pressure points, the surface needs to have some give. Everyone understands this- we put pillows on hard chairs and prefer padded sofas over metal park benches. A too-firm mattress provides no relief from pressure points.
The Back Curves
The other important point is that the back is not straight. It naturally curves. Trying to straighten out the curves places great stress on the muscles, tendons, and even bones of the back, leading to pain and damage. When lying on a hard floor, the back has to either constantly work hard to maintain its curvature, which can lead to pain, or it can give up and straighten out, which also leads to pain. If instead, a person lies on a surface with some give, the surface will conform to the natural curves of the body and support them. Of course, if the surface is too soft, it will conform to the natural curves but provide no support at all. Therefore, a properly-designed orthopedic mattress needs to achieve the perfect balance of sufficient softness and sufficient support. Of course, there are individual differences in how much support is necessary. It is important for each person to try out orthopedic mattresses on an individual basis rather than just accepting a doctor’s prescription for a particular mattress.
Joe Auer is the editor of Mattress Clarity. He mainly focuses on mattress reviews and oversees the content across the site.
He likes things simple and take a straightforward, objective approach to his reviews. Joe has personally tested nearly 250 mattresses and always recommends people do their research before buying a new bed. He has been testing mattresses for over 5 years now, so he knows a thing or two when it comes to mattress selection. He has been cited as an authority in the industry by a number of large publications.
Joe has an undergraduate degree from Wake Forest University and an MBA from Columbia University.