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How to Pick a Mattress for Back Pain

Picking a mattress for back pain Do you wake up feeling refreshed or do you suffer from aches and pains? Do you find your shoulders are sore or your neck is throbbing and achy? When you rise from your bed, do you rub your lower back and hope that the warmth of your morning shower will stop the discomfort and pain? If so, it may be that your spine is not sufficiently supported by your mattress as you sleep. That’s if you can actually get comfortable enough to get to sleep, and stay comfortable enough that you don’t continually wake up throughout the night. An aching back is more than just an inconvenience; it stops you from enjoying a restful, rejuvenating sleep, and that means that your busy day doesn’t go as planned. . The answer might be that you need to buy a new mattress. That said, shopping for a new mattress can be confusing. There are several types of mattress on the market, and each offers different levels of support. There are also myths to contend with, such as ‘anyone with a bad back needs to sleep on a super-hard mattress.’ As well as understanding how different mattresses offer different levels of support for your back (and your skeleton as a whole), this guide also looks at other ways that you can keep your back and joints healthy.

How to Tell if You Have Back Problems

It is a vicious circle – your back is aching, you find it difficult to get comfortable in bed and you may wake several times in the night as you search for the most comfortable sleeping position. Sleep deprivation is the result, meaning you are irritable all day. This continues ad nauseum, night after night. Trying to get to sleep with back pain is just one sign there is a problem with your back. You might also find yourself:
  • Waking with a headache, because of poor support during the night for your neck and back
  • Waking with an aching back
  • Suffering with aching joints, especially the neck and shoulders
  • Feeling hip pain or discomfort - this can also be a sign of back problems and a lack of lower lumbar support
Research into the science behind sleeping and back pain is sadly lacking, but waking with a twisted back, aching limbs and a throbbing lower back are all signs that your sleeping position is causing your back problems. A lack of support from the mattress in combination with the ‘wrong kind’ of pillow will exacerbate the problem. Some sleep positions put added pressure on the neck, shoulders, hips, lower back, knees and even heels. Sleeping on your stomach, for example, straightens the natural curve of the spine and also rotates the neck - this in itself can lead to back pain. It is also important that you are able to move easily in your sleep, as sleeping in one position for too long can lead to back pain. There is no ‘one sleeping position suits all,’ and no one position that eliminates back pain in all people completely. That said, your mattress could be the cause of (or certainly a contributing factor) to back pain.

How do you know that your mattress needs replacing?

  1. When does your back pain occur? If your back starts to ache within 15 to 30 minutes of getting into bed, this is a sign that your mattress is doing more harm than good.
  2. Are you waking frequently in the night or tossing and turning? If so, it could be a sign your mattress is past its prime as you struggle to get comfortable.
  3. How old is your mattress? Even when you look after your mattress, it will last between eight and 10 years. Any older, and it really needs to be replaced.

Different Types of Mattresses

Supporting your spine means getting the right mattress. That said, there are many different kinds to choose from.
  • Pocket-spring mattress – this kind of mattress uses a steel coil support system. There are several types of spring systems on the market, from individually wrapped pocket coils to springs connected in units. The number of coils, coil gauge, shapes and designs can vary, as do foams and fibres. In general, the more coils in a mattress of this kind, the more points of support, and the better it will contour to your shape.
  • Pillow-top mattress – this is an additional layer of upholstery (with either a fibre or foam centre) that is stitched onto the top of the mattress.
  • Hybrid mattress – this is a combination of a steel coil support system with one or more type of foam, often including memory foam.
  • Speciality foam mattress – this combines one or more type of foam into a support system within the mattress. They are available in a range of shapes and densities to offer users different comfort levels and heat dissipation features.
  • Gel mattress – this type of mattress uses gel and a combination of upholstery layers to provide the user with different comfort levels and support.
  • Memory foam mattress – also known as viscoelastic, memory foam offers a unique support system that moulds closely to the shape of the sleeper.
  • Airbed – an airbed uses air in small chambers to provide a comfortable sleeping surface. The airbed can be adjusted to suit the user and with some high-end models, you can adjust the air in different chambers to make for a truly personalised sleeping experience.
  • Waterbed – uses the same principle as the airbed, but instead has water in chambers. Sleeping on a waterbed can be incredibly comfortable. Again, there are various models and makes available, all offering different ways of adjusting the waterbed, including ‘waveless technology’.

Different Areas of the Spine

As a long column of interconnecting smaller bones, it is important that your spine is supported as you sleep. Now that you have an understanding of the different mattress types on offer, understanding how to support your back is important. Pinpointing the area that needs support helps in determining which mattress is best for you. Back Pain Your spine has three gentle curves, all of which need supporting by your mattress as you sleep or lay down, irrespective of your sleeping position;
  1. Cervical – this is the c-shaped parts of your spine that support your head.
  2. Thoracic – this is the c-shape part of the spines that hold up the upper body.
  3. Lumbar – the c-shaped curve in the lower back that is the foundation for your back.

Which Mattress Type is Best for Lumbar Back Pain?

Mattresses are not all the same, and this often leads to confusion when buying a new model, especially if you want one that alleviates your lower back pain. Remember, your spine is made up of three gentle curves at the top, the middle and the lower end of the back. Consider these three areas as ‘pressure points’ that must be supported. In other words, lying on an overly firm mattress (which for a long time was assumed to be best for those with aching backs) is no longer seen as the answer. An overly hard or firm mattress will push your spine straight, potentially making your aching back worse! When it comes to the best type of mattress for your lower back you need to consider three factors: support, conforming ability, and firmness.
  • Support
Too soft or too hard a mattress will undermine the support for your lower back and the rest of your skeleton. For example, when a mattress sags in the middle, it pushes your back into a straight line, causing you to toss and turn, as well as causing aches and pains in the morning. A mattress that is too hard does not allow your spine to fall into its curved shape, again causing it to be pushed into a straight line. Remember – this is not a natural position for your spine.
  • Conforming Ability
This refers to how well a mattress moulds around the contours of the body. A high performing mattress will equally support your spine throughout its entire length. If it doesn’t envelope your spine, it means that a part of the body is unsupported. This causes pressure on the spine that can then be transferred to the lower back. This leads to the hips (and in some cases the shoulders) feeling more pressure, leaving you with aches and pains in the morning.
  • Firmness
The right firmness in a mattress is a crucial factor in preventing and alleviating back pain:
  • A soft mattress will provide adequate support for smaller people who weigh less than 130lbs. For taller and heavier people, this type of mattress would not offer the lower back support needed.
  • A medium mattress will support sleepers who prefer to sleep on their side or stomach.
  • A firm mattress provides extra support, provided it is where you need it in the lower region of your back. But remember, excessive firmness will not always offer the support you need!
Sleeping Positions We all have a favoured sleeping position. However, your favoured choice could be the cause of your back pain. If you suffer from back or neckache, try to sleep on your side or on your back. Avoid sleeping on your stomach, as this forces the top part of your spine and neck to be straight. Add to this a rotated neck position and you can understand why you wake up with an aching neck in the morning! The foetal position can also exacerbate a bad back. If this is your favourite position, try to not curl up as tight. And check that your pillows are the right combinations too.

What Kind of Mattress do the Experts Recommend?

Studies have shown that a high-quality memory foam mattress is one of the best for supporting the lower back, offering the right level of support, conforming ability and firmness, thus preventing back pain. Pocket sprung mattresses (in which coils are sewn into individual pockets) are also known to support the back, and they contour well to the body. Always buy the best quality coil spring mattress, as lower quality ones can sag within a few years, leading to your back problems reoccurring.

How Much do Mattresses Cost?

As well as being a minefield of conflicting information, the cost of a new mattress can run into several hundreds (or even thousands) of pounds. Although we assume that the more it costs, the better it will be, this may not always be the case. A high-quality memory foam king size mattress can cost upward of £500 but with discounts and offers, it is possible to buy a fantastic quality mattress for around £300. A pocket sprung king size mattress is not much more, with prices starting at £349 for a high-quality mattress that will not sag, holding its shape and offering you support for years to come.  
Single Small Double Double King Super King
Memory Foam £149 to £199   £199 to £275 £199 - £275 £249 to £299 £299 to £349
Pocket Sprung £175 to £225   £225 to £299 £225 to £299 £299 - £349 £349 to £399
  Prices correct as at July 2017 and include our current deals and discounts. Check for the latest prices and stock levels.  

How to Get Help for Back Pain

Of course, back pain is not always brought on solely by an old sagging mattress. A new mattress, memory foam or otherwise, will not be the solution if another underlying cause is the reason for acute back pain. Your back is important and you need to look after it. Having ‘a bad back’ can be agony, and when the problem keeps hanging around, knowing what to do about it can be a problem.
  1. See your doctor
Like most ailments, it is important that a reoccurring back problem is discussed with your doctor. As well as prescribing a course of painkillers and anti-inflammatory medication, he or she may also suggest that you attend physiotherapy sessions. A physiotherapist will be able to show you a series of back stretching exercises that can help to strengthen and tone back muscles, as well as helping your back become stronger. Back pain can be a symptom of stress, as well as other illnesses. Always see your doctor if back pain is accompanied by other symptoms such as nausea, weight loss and pain in other areas of the body. It is important to ask your doctor first before you start any back exercises or any kind of activity. There are many reasons why your back is aching. It can be symptomatic of other conditions. Chiropractor or osteopath? As well as physiotherapist, there are other professionals who could help with a reoccurring back problem;
  • Osteopath – osteopathic medicine has been around for decades. When you see an osteopath, they will examine other areas of the body and assess how other ailments could be impacting your skeleton. They will use a range of techniques to heal muscle and soft tissue, as well as manipulate joints and the spine in order to restore its natural curves.
  • Chiropractor – a chiropractor will mainly, but not exclusively, focus on the spine. They will use a range of diagnostic procedures such as X-rays, MRIs, scans, blood tests and urine tests to help determine not only what the problem is, but the best course of action.
  • Massage therapist – some people also use deep massage as a form of ‘treatment’ to help relax their back and shoulder muscles and alleviate back pain. However, it is important to first determine if the pain you are experiencing is nothing serious, as there are certain back conditions that can actually be made worse by massaging or rubbing the spine and muscles.
Back Pain at Desk
  1. Exercise
Many people live an increasingly sedentary lifestyle. We sit at a desk all day, using a PC. Worse still, many of us curl up on the sofa with our laptop for hours on end. When we walk we do so with rounded shoulders. When we lift, we do so incorrectly, often lifting heavy things in a way that we find more comfortable but strains the back. All these things, when combined with little or no exercise, can mean that our backs can pay the price. When you have back pain or a dull ache in the lower back, it is common to think that the best course of action is to immobilise the area and rest. Although there is merit in this, modern medical research suggests that the best thing for back ache is to continue moving. Gentle exercise in which the back is supported, such as swimming, or a gentle stroll helps to keep the back healthy and stop the muscles from seizing further. As well as gentle exercising, when you have back pain or an ache, use hot and cold pack alternately on the affected area to help with swelling and the pain. Maintaining an active level of fitness can also help to keep many back problems and pain at bay.
  • Diet
The back is responsible for coordinating all kinds of physical movements. A bad back can result in the most basic of functions (from bending, sitting, walking, lying or even waving your arms around) incredibly difficult and painful. As well as an active lifestyle, keeping our weight in check will help your back health, and that comes down to our diet. Carrying excessive weight for any period of time will place stress on the back, and when a bad back strikes, it can take longer to recover. If you do suffer from a painful or aching back from time to time, there are some foods that have excellent anti-inflammatory properties that can help your body fight off the pain.
  1. Stress
An aching back can also be a symptom of stress. When we are overly stressed by work, life or any other issues, we tense our muscles. This can lead to them becoming painful. As well as interrupting our sleep, stress has a physical impact on the body. If you feel your aching back is symptomatic of stress, why not look at relaxing therapies (such as massage), as well as dealing with the issue that causes you to become stressed?

In Summary

The mattress on your bed is a major contributing factor to the health of your spine. Waking up with aches and pains in the back or the shoulders, neck and other joints are all indications that your mattress needs to be replaced. But this process can be confusing, as you have to make a choice from the many different types of mattress available. From air beds and waterbeds to pocket sprung mattresses and memory foam mattresses, understanding what support they offer is an important part of the selection and buying process. Understanding the spine and the three gentle curves at the neck, the upper back and the lower back region, will help you to understand the kind of support, conformability and firmness you are looking for in a mattress. When a mattress is too soft, too hard, or fails to support your spine, the pressure is transferred to the lower back, meaning that lumbar pain is common. As well as replacing your mattress, there are any other things you can do to look after your back. This ranges from checking with your doctor to ensure that it is not symptomatic of another illness, to visiting a chiropractor or osteopath, to remaining active with a healthy lifestyle. Even when well looked after, a mattress has a limited life. If you sleep in your own bed every night for its eight-year lifespan, it will support your weight for nearly 3,000 nights, a total of 23,000 hours sleeping time if you get your full eight hours sleep every night! The statistics are incredible and so, replacing your mattress every eight to 10 years ensures that you always have the right support for your spine, night after night, hour after hour. Back Pain Infographic