Back Pain? Could It Be Your Mattress?

The Ultimate Guide on How To Avoid Back Pain

July 20, 2018
Healthy SleepIn the Bedroom

Back pain. It’s one of the most common maladies in the U.S., according to the National Institutes of Health. Sufferers spend valuable money and time trying to beat their back pain.

Someone with back pain may be suffering from an injury, a congenital health condition or a mechanical defect in their muscles or bones. The injury can be resolved and the back pain will go away. Eventually. A mechanical issue or congenital health issue aren’t as easily dealt with. That requires diagnostic testing, a treatment plan, medications, therapy and exercises.

And, quite possibly, a good mattress. After all, you can’t sleep well if your mattress isn’t supporting your body properly. If your mattress is eight to 10 years old, it’s entering that time frame where materials and coils are beginning to break down. Your nights aren’t as restful. You wake up feeling more tired than when you went to bed. Your back and body probably ache. And, if you do have a back issue, an old mattress probably makes it worse.

Getting a healthy and comfortable night’s sleep requires several remedies.

Healthiest Sleeping Positions (and Why)

Two sleeping positions are the most healthy, depending on health or back issues you may have. One isn’t truly healthy, but can be rendered safer with one modification.

Sleeping on your back is the healthiest for your neck and back. If you suffer from acid reflux, this position is the healthiest for keeping it under control. When you lie on your back in bed, you’re allowing your neck and back (spine) to assume a neutral position. Nothing is kinked, bent or curved out of its natural shape. Result: You should feel less pain in the morning when you wake up to get ready for your day. If you do suffer from acid reflux, a back-sleeping position is the best for keeping that “down,” as it were. If you slip a pillow under your head, then your stomach is lower than your esophagus. This means that food in your stomach will stay there. The pillow should be slightly puffy. The only drawback to back sleeping is that you’re more likely to snore. If you or your partner snore, this could be an issue.

The second best sleeping position is on either side. Again, this helps to prevent back and/or neck pain. You’ll keep that pesky acid reflux down as well. Because you aren’t on your back, your chin won’t drop down and you’re less likely to snore. If you’re pregnant, your OB-BYN will recommend sleeping on your side—usually, your left side, which is better for blood flow to your uterus and the fetus. If you already prefer sleeping on your side, choose a thick pillow. This helps to compensate for the large space between your head, neck and the mattress, which allows your spine, neck and head to keep a neutral position.

If you love, love, love that fetal position, that’s not a good one for you. You’ll feel more back and neck pain in the morning. You’ll also restrict the ability of your diaphragm to expand as you breathe at night. 

Another bad sleeping position for your back is stomach-sleeping. In fact, it’s rated as the worst position for preventing back and neck pain. You can’t keep that neutral positioning of your spine, neck and head. Keeping your head turned to one side for several hours also leads to a painful, stiff neck. The only thing that stomach-sleeping is good for is preventing snoring. Use a thin pillow to prevent kinking your neck and spine.

How Different Sleeping Positions Affect Your Body and Sleep

Sleeping on your back won’t put excess pressure on your spine, neck or head. As a result, you’ll wake up feeling good. If you suffer from sleep apnea, however this is not a position to sleep in. 

Sleeping on your side is ideal if you suffer from sleep apnea—your airway always stays open this way. Just position yourself in such a way that you elongate your spine—much less pain.

Fetal position—as long as you are loosely tucked in, this position can be good, especially if you are lying on your left side while pregnant. If you have joint problems, such as arthritis, a tightly tucked fetal position is bad. You’ll wake up stiff and achy in the morning. As you sleep, keep your chin untucked. If you do have back problems, slide a pillow between your knees.

Stomach sleeping won’t allow your spine, neck and head to rest in a neutral position. You’re also putting too much pressure on various joints and muscles. You’ll feel achy and numb in the morning.

Modifications for Sleeping Positions

If you’ve already gotten some kind of diagnosis for a back or neck problem you have, sleep on your back. Your pillow shouldn’t be too thick or full. You want a pillow that still allows you to keep your neck straight. Think about sleeping a pillow beneath your knees, which helps you keep that normal lower-back curvature. If you need, roll a small towel and slip it between the mattress and small of your back for more support.

Again, slip a pillow in between your knees. If you suffer from  a condition like scoliosis, this helps your spine maintain a neutral position. Or, a full-length body pillow may help you sleep comfortably.

If stomach-sleeping is the only way you can be comfortable, modify your position just a little bit. Slip a pillow beneath your lower abdomen and pelvis. This helps you maintain a more natural position and avoid that achy feeling in the morning. See how you feel sleeping with and without a pillow. Choose the most comfortable position for your neck. You can also use a neck pillow. Rather than turning your head to either side, position the neck pillow so that you are able to keep your head straight (face looking toward the mattress). No kinked neck.

Tired, Old Mattress?

Mattresses aren’t cheap. But that’s no excuse for continuing to sleep on one, especially if you have a bad back. Old mattresses lack the support and firmness your body needs. As a result, you don’t feel very comfortable and you can’t sleep well. That lack of firmness and support lead to body and back aches that are all too familiar. Yes, you can put a mattress topper and a thin piece of plywood on top of your old mattress. But that will only last a little while before they get old, too.

The materials in your old mattress are showing their age. Over time, they just can’t perform as they did when they were new. Eventually, you’re going to have to get a new mattress. If your mattress is old, take a good, hard look at it. Pull the covers off. If it sags anywhere, it’s losing its ability to support your body.

Lower Back Pain & the “Best” Mattress

You’ll have to “road-test” several mattresses until you find the one that makes your body feel the best. Go to mattress stores and lie down on several. Don’t lie there for just a minute. Give it five or ten minutes in different positions before you decide. As you’re lying on different mattresses, check on how your back and neck feel. You’ll want firm support with just a little bit of give for your joints.

Memory Foam Mattress

“Can I sleep on that memory foam mattress?” That’s actually a “six of one, half-a-dozen of the other” kind of question. Memory foam mattresses aren’t for every body. If you have the kind of back issue that needs both firmness and a little give, then the right kind of memory foam mattress will help you get that healthy night’s sleep you need.

On the other hand, if you have the habit of sleeping on your stomach or in a tight fetal position, then a memory foam mattress may make getting a good night’s sleep more difficult. There’s also the “everyone has a different body type” issue. If you are heavier, then a memory foam mattress may make you hotter at night. Memory foam isn’t the best for allowing you to stay cooler at night. It holds your body heat in, which is great for cold winter months.

Also, because you’re heavier, it’ll be harder to change position (i.e., roll over) during the night. Think of quicksand. That’s kind of what memory foam is when you’re asleep and you need to change from your back to your side.

Your Morning Soreness is Telling You Something

We don’t need to go into the details. Your back hurts. Your shoulders are screaming. Your neck? Forget about it! Your body is trying to tell you something: “Hey, bud! Get rid of that old mattress! If your mom slept on it and gave it to you, then it’s ready for the recycling heap.” After eight to 10 years, your mattress just isn’t the same. It’s old and it’s falling apart.

And, because you’re sleeping on that mattress, your body isn’t getting the support it needs. If you have an innerspring mattress, it’s pressing into you, but not giving you the support you need. 

  • If you toss and turn more now than you did a few years ago, you just can’t get comfortable. Old mattress!
  • If you’re just as tired in the morning as you were the night before, you can’t fall into a full, restful REM-inducing sleep. Your sleep is poor. The mattress is dying!
  • If you’re lying on a bump that wasn’t there a few months ago, the padding is shifting around.
  • If you and your sleeping partner “meet in the middle” of your mattress, it’s sagging. That doesn’t make for a restful night.
  • Noisy box spring? It’s losing its support. If you see an impression in the mattress, and you don’t have a memory foam, then that’s a sure clue. Old mattress.

What are Your Priorities?

A high-quality mattress isn’t cheap. It’s going to cost significant bucks. Are you the person who decides to skimp on paying for a high-quality mattress because you’re getting ready to buy that expensive gas-powered grill? What comes first? Your health or your entertainment plans? Yes, when you go into a mattress store, you’re going to see some high prices. It’s time to adjust your thinking.

Commit to buying a high-quality mattress and improving your back pain. Because, will you be able to enjoy standing at a hot grill, cooking meats and vegetables, if your back is hurting? No, you won’t. The whole time you’re standing there, you’ll be thinking, “I can’t WAIT to get off my feet! Give my back some relief!” Besides, it’s healthier for you to find the right mattress for your body’s needs. Once you start sleeping restfully through the night and waking up with little or no pain, you’ll be more able to enjoy those social events much more.

Is Memory Foam Good for a Sore Back?

If you suffer from joint pain, muscular pain, disc issues in your spine, arthritis or a degenerative condition, then yes. A memory foam mattress will help your pain.

The properties of a memory foam mattress are excellent for conditions that involve muscle or joint pain. However, if you have other back issues, a memory foam mattress may make them worse. So, memory foam mattresses haven’t been constructed for everyone. Traditional innerspring mattresses with the coils will still be hanging around for those who need their support. Just make sure to replace your mattresses at least every 10 years!