Tips for Finding the Right Mattress for You

Question: I have rheumatoid arthritis, fibromyalgia, and other conditions that cause lower back pain. Recently, I started noticing that my mattress does not feel like it did four or five years ago. I am considering an all-latex foam mattress as opposed to an innerspring mattress. I’ve read good things about the Sleep Number mattress, but I’m having a difficult time making sense out of all the sales talk. Can you help me get “the lay of the land” about what I should look for?

Answer: This is a more difficult question than would initially appear. After consulting with several mattress manufacturers and salespeople, I decided to synthesize the information, rather than just provide one opinion — and there are many! Your reason for mattress shopping is valid. As your body changes, your sleeping patterns change, too. You spend about a third of your life sleeping, so choosing the right mattress can improve the quality of the other two thirds.

It is critical that a new mattress be constructed of materials that give you proper support to minimize pain. Models come with different comfort layers — ranging from firm to pillow top — that can meet your needs. Pick a firm top if you sleep mostly on your back or stomach. Plush-layer mattresses work best to sooth pressure points throughout your body as you sleep. Pillow tops are constructed of material soft enough to let your body sink in, and tight tops are made with a flat surface and use firmer upholstery than other mattresses.

Latex, or memory foam, mattresses use state-of-the-art technology that conforms to your body to alleviate pressure for proper support. The “memory” of the foam, which is constructed from polyurethane materials, takes on your body’s shape and evenly distributes your weight across the surface of the mattress. For couples that share a bed, a memory foam latex mattress is a good choice. It reduces heavy motion transfer, which allows sleepers to move without disrupting their partners. This may be a better choice for you than an innerspring mattress, which uses different steel core constructions to provide comfort and support.

Innerspring mattresses are good for side sleepers and those who are on a particularly tight budget. Compared to other mattress types, innerspring versions are more affordable. Sleep Number beds offer adjustable firmness and comfort: Each side has its own setting. They are sophisticated air mattresses. Back-pain relief and better sleep are commonly reported. Primary concerns include the time and effort required to find your optimal setting; your preferred setting may vary depending on your sleep position, requiring you to change the setting each time you change position or “sleep number.” Users of some Sleep Number models say a valley or trench develops in the middle of the mattress, while others report a hump.

When you go shopping, plan to lie down on each mattress you consider. Take the pillow that you regularly sleep on, as it works to align your body properly as you sleep. Stay on the bed for at least 15 minutes in the position you most frequently sleep. Check for pain and act accordingly. Two other considerations: Box springs come in two heights. Pick the height based on your comfort level when you sit on the side of the bed. Finally, if you prefer to read or watch television before sleeping, take a look at an adjustable bed. It tilts up to give you a comfortable backrest and then moves down when you’re ready for sleep.

Our expert: Jackson Rainer is a board-certified clinical psychologist who practices with the Care and Counseling Center in Decatur, Georgia, helping people living with chronic illnesses. He consults with a variety of experts to answer a selection of readers’ questions in each issue of Pain-Free Living.

Have questions about living with and managing chronic pain? Email questions to [email protected]. Please put “PFL Q&A” in the subject line.


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