IS A FIRM MATTRESS BETTER FOR YOUR BACK?
Purchasing a new mattress is a large investment that should not be taken lightly. When it comes to choosing your new mattress, you should take your time and make an informed decision. One frequent question on sleepers’ mind? Is a firm mattress better for your back?
If you are here to find the best mattress for your back, check out our Non-Biased Reviews Best Mattress For Back Pain guide.
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Is A Firm Mattress Better For Your Back?
Back in the days, there was a strong belief that the harder the mattress, the better it was for the back. Later on, softer mattresses gained popularity as a more comfortable source of sleep. Modern scientists however, have come to the conclusion that too-hard and too-soft mattresses are both harmful to muscles and joints.
Today, we understand that each sleeper requires a different firmness level in their mattress to sleep in a healthy position. The ultimate goal is to align a sleeper’s spine from neck to rump, no matter the position they sleep in.
There are two groups of people however, you will nearly always benefit from a firm mattress: heavier-weight folks, as well as those with chronic back pain. If you suffer from back pain, check out our guide below. If you are heavier or tall, click that second box for good mattress recommendations! If your preferred sleeping style is on your stomach, it is generally recommended that you sleep on a firmer mattress to ensure your spine does not arch.
What Is Mattress Firmness And How Comfortable Sleep Depends On It
All mattresses have a certain level of firmness – that is the ability of the mattress to support a person’s weight. A harder mattress will keep its shape, while a softer mattress can give the sleeper the feeling of falling in or even being stuck in it.
Some sleepers will compare a hard mattress with sleeping on the floor, while others will wake up in pain from soft mattresses and describe their night as being stuck in the mattress.
Experts believe that very few mattresses will ever fit everyone’s firmness preference. It takes some knowledge of anatomy and the human spine to really understand what works best for each sleeper.
Our spine has natural curves, whether standing, sitting, or laying. The spinal curves are needed in order to maintain the body in the correct position and correctly distributing the body weight when walking or running. But when a person is lying down, the spine should be resting in a straight position – no matter whether sleeping on your side, back, or stomach.
This helps you understand that each sleeping position has different mattress firmness requirements.
What effect does mattress firmness have on your body?
The following are physical results of sleeping on a mattress adapted to your sleeping position:
- Relaxed back muscles
- Reduced weight and stress on the spine
- Better blood flow throughout the body, since the spinal cord is laying in a natural position
Unless you suffer from recurring back and/or joint problems, if you sleep in a healthy position, you can expect to wake up without pain in your neck and back. If you are a healthy individual without health concerns and wake up with pain and aches, your mattress and/or pillow are likely the cause of your discomfort. The correct mattress firmness will bend under your body in ways that align your spine from neck to rump.
evenly under the weight of the sleeping person: more in the hips and shoulder region, and less in the lumbar region.
If your mattress is too hard, your spine will bend and arc during sleep. Your lower back (or lumbar region) could “hang” up in the air, and the muscles trying to keep your body in the correct position will tense, leading to back pain in the morning.
If your mattress is too soft, your spine will be out of alignment, a bit like when laying in a hammock. In this position, you will suffer from poor rest, and will wake up tired and aching.
Is There Scientific Evidence That The Firmness Of A Mattress Affects Sleep Quality?
The firmness of your mattress is only one of the factors that can affect the quality of your sleep. In fact, there are many reasons you can wake up feeling non rested:
- The time you go to bed
- What you did prior to going to bed
- What, and how much, you ate or drank for dinner
- Your current mood, stress level, and emotional state
- The quality and firmness of your pillow
- The temperature in your room
- The noise and darkness level surrounding you
- And many more reasons, including children crying at night, a partner moving, schedule differences in your household, etc.
However, if we talk about the science of mattresses, it is worth paying attention to the research scientists are conducting. For example, a study was conducted with 113 people who complained from back pain, but had no clear medical reasons that would indicate abnormalities that could lead to pain. Each of these 113 people received a mattress of medium to high firmness. The study followed those subjects for three months, and it became clear that the pain was reduced only in those who slept on a mattress of medium firmness.
Another similar experiment, lead with 59 people over a month, recorded the participants’ sleep on their usual mattress. They were then given medium-firm mattresses and asked to keep recording their feelings for another month. At the end of the experiment, it turned out that all people began to sleep better on the mattresses they received.
Of course, back problems from a poorly adapted mattress may not jump to mind as the first reason for pains and aches, but if you start noticing fatigue, new pains in your shoulders, hips, or lower back areas upon waking up, this could be the first signals that your mattress is part of the problem.
Mattress Firmness For Couples
We mentioned sleep position as a main factor in choosing your mattress firmness. However, your body weight will be another criterion to keep in mind when choosing the right mattress firmness for you. And keep in mind that personal preference and your partner’s weight and sleeping position will have an impact on your choice. A mattress loved by your friend of same height, weight, and sleeping style, may or may not be the right fit for you.
Thankfully today, if you purchase your mattress online, you will find that virtually all brands let you sleep test the mattress at home for a period of 60 to 365 days. If the firmness is not adapted to your body, return the mattress and order a new one.
Exchangeable Comfort Layer Mattresses
Some mattresses have an exchangeable upper layer of foam and you can easily switch to a firmer or softer foam by exchanging that layer without having to switch mattresses.
If your budget allows, look into mattresses offering dual comfort – where each partner can customize the firmness of their side of the bed. You can sleep on 1 mattress, with a soft and a hard side.
Lastly, some mattress manufacturers make high-tech mattresses which manually or electrically allow each partner to adjust the firmness level of their side of the bed.
Mattress Firmness Recommendations And Tips
Use the below graph as a high-level guide to choosing a mattress firmness adapted to your body weight and sleeping style.
Keep in mind that your personal preference for mattress firmness, existing illnesses, ailments, or injuries, and whether you sleep with a partner, will impact your ideal mattress firmness level.
In the mattress industry, the average firmness level is considered to be between 6 and 6.5 out of 10. It is rarely recommended to sleep on mattresses below a 4/10 or above a 9/10, unless your doctor recommends it.
To find the perfect mattress firmness for your personal needs, lay on the mattress in your preferred sleeping position and pay close attention to the alignment of your back.
If you lay on your side, do you notice your shoulders and hips laying a little lower to ensure your spine is aligned? If you, instead feel that your shoulders are getting crushed, the mattress is too firm for your needs.
Sleeping on your back or stomach? Ensure that your hips are not hanging too low – that would indicate that the mattress is too soft.
Ideally, you need to spend three or four weeks testing your new mattress before deciding that it is not for you. As you lay on a new mattress, your body may relax in places it did not before, and firm up in a new ways, creating potential aches in the first few weeks. Most mattress return policies will even ask that you sleep on the mattress at least 30 nights prior to returning the mattress. It is how long your body need to adapt to a new sleeping surface.
Testing out a mattress in a store is near impossible. Laying on a mattress for a couple of minutes with a sales man watching you will never be enough of a trial to make an educated decision. Purchasing a mattress online with a return policy, allows you to sleep full nights and get a true sense for how your body reacts to the mattress.
When making your initial purchase decision, focus on your body weight and any known personal preferences. The graph above should be used as a guide. As you read through most mattress reviews, including here on Non-Biased Reviews, you will find firmness levels on a scale of 1 to 10. The arrows at the top of the graph above indicate the firmness level on that same scale.
We know that the higher a person’s weight, the firmer his/her mattress should be. Heavier folks need a firmer mattress to help their spine support their weight.
A lighter person can opt for a softer mattress and enjoy a little more plushness if desired. His/her body will not sink in as deep and their spine can stay aligned on softer mattress, adding a bit of comfort to their sleeping surface.
One last thing to consider is the age of the sleeper. It is believed that a softer mattress is better for the elderly, while a firmer option is best for small children. Note that crib mattresses should be on the firmer side to avoid risks of suffocation in newborns and toddlers.
In addition, there are “double-sided” mattresses with different firmness on sale. If something happens, you can turn it over to a more convenient side and not spend money on a new product.
What To Do If Your Mattress Is Too Firm
If your mattress is too firm, you will have hopefully purchased it online and can benefit from your mattress manufacturer’s trial and return policy. Most mattresses purchased online give you a 60 to 365-day at-home trial period during which you can return and/or exchange your mattress. If you can, return your mattress and exchange it for the same mattress in a different comfort level, when available, or get a refund and shop for a softer mattress.
Depending on your mattress type, you may be able to exchange the comfort layer, flip your mattress to a softer side, or adjust firmness level with the turn of a knob or electrically. If you own a more regular mattress however, you have a couple of options below:
- If you are past your mattress trial period and not ready to invest into a new mattress, look at adding a softer mattress topper. By adding a mattress topper, you will benefit from a brand new sleeping surface added on top of your old mattress, while generally spending around $100-$250.
- If you are ready for a new mattress, make sure to check our Best Mattress list for this year, and check here to see how you can donate or recycle your old mattress!
Most frequent questions and answers
A firm mattress is generally recommended for people sleeping on their stomach and backs, and/or suffering from back pain. Heavier folks can also benefit from a firmer mattress.
The ideal mattress firmness varies for each person and depends on sleeping style, body weight, personal preferences, whether sleeping with a partner, and chronic pains.
Yes! Mattress firmness affects sleep a lot. Too firm of a mattress will give the impression hips and shoulders getting crushed, while too soft of a mattress can bend and arc the body is painful ways.
A medium firmness is generally rated around a 6/10 on the firmness scale. A soft mattress can be anywhere between 4 and 5.5/10, while a mattress considered firm will be a 7 to 8/10.
Side sleepers have specific needs. They need a mattress providing enough softness for the hip and shoulder areas to lay deeper in, with enough firmness for the spine to get the support it needs. A firmness around 5 to 6/10 is best for side sleepers.
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