The Best Mattress for Back Pain

Don't let an aching back keep you from a good night's sleep.

How to choose a mattress for back pain.
You'll sleep better when your back is supported. Tetra Images/Getty Images

If you suffer from chronic back pain, or tend to wake up feeling stiff and sore, your mattress might be to blame. An old mattress with worn springs and sagging filling leaves your shoulders and hips unsupported and your spine out of alignment, causing aches and pains in the morning. While the answer to your discomfort might be a new mattress, the decision as to WHICH new mattress is not quite as simple.

To narrow down the many mattresses available to the one perfect choice for your own situation, it helps to understand three related mattress terms: firmness, supportiveness and conformability.

Mattress Firmness

The firmness of a mattress refers to how much give/ resistance the mattress has under the weight of your body. You might assume that when it comes to back pain, the softer the mattress, the better. After all, a firm mattress places too much stress on a sore back, right? Actually, just the opposite is true. An overly soft mattress, though it might cradle your body, doesn’t provide enough support to your spine. On the opposite extreme, a very firm mattress – which was once the recommendation of back experts for those with pain – is also rarely the right choice.  While a firm mattress does keep your spine in alignment, it tends to put too much pressure on your hips, shoulders, heels and head, leading to aches in those areas, especially if you are a side sleeper.

As a general rule, to ward off back pain or ease existing achiness, you’ll do best with a medium-firm mattress. Just about every type of mattress comes in a range of firmnesses: some, like airbeds, are adjustable.  

Mattress Supportiveness

An unsupportive mattress is one of the most common causes of morning stiffness and pain.

As mattresses age, they tend to lose supportiveness, but very soft mattresses can lack support right from the beginning. When you lie down on a mattress with good support, your body is in proper alignment. That means that there is no sagging or sinking under your weight, and your head, torso, hips and legs are in a relaxed, neutral position with no stress on your joints.

While traditional innerspring mattresses are quite supportive when new, they tend to lose that support and begin to sag within just a few years. You’ll find longer-lasting support from memory foam, latex and airbed mattresses, making these potentially better choices for those with chronic back pain.

Mattress Conformability

A mattress with good conformability molds itself to your body, so that you are evenly supported without any pressure points. If your mattress lacks conformability, you may wake up with sore hips or a sore back, or even pain in your elbows and knees. For those with very delicate skin, a mattress without enough conformability can even lead to skin sores or bruising.

Probably the best type of mattress in terms of conformability is memory foam. On a good memory foam mattress, you can push your hand down to create an imprint, and then watch the mattress slowly “heal” as it returns to its former position.

This makes memory foam mattresses one of the best choices for those with back pain, but these mattresses do have a downside as well: many people find them hot, they can create “drag” as you turn over in bed and they are not the best choice for romance.

Other types of mattress with good conformability are waterbeds and innerspring mattresses with memory foam overlays.

Ultimately, the best mattress foryour bad back is the one that makes YOU feel the most comfortable. You are likely to find relief with a memory foam mattress, but if that’s not an option, consider an airbed, such as Sleep Number. If you prefer a traditional innerspring mattress, look for one with medium-firm support and a layer of memory foam for extra conformability.