Beds and mattresses

Cat sleeping on a mattress

Introduction

If you answer yes to two or more of the following questions, it’s likely your bed is contributing to your spinal problem.

  • Do you wake in the morning with a stiff, achy low back?
  • Do you go to bed at night with your low-back feeling ok?
  • Are you better in the afternoon and evening?
  • Is your bed older than 10 years?
  • Do you feel your bed is particularly soft or hard?
  • When you sleep in another bed, does your back feel better in the morning?
  • Have you just bought a new bed and mattress that’s firmer than the old one?

Background

The joints, discs, ligaments, muscles and nerves of the human spine don’t like being still for too long. And we spend up to a third of our lives on a mattress!

The best sleeping position is lying on your side with one or both legs bent up. Turning to the other side through the night should happen without disturbing your sleep. Lying on your front all night (prone) is demanding for the low back, although younger spines may well be able to cope with it. Lying on your back (supine) with your legs straight out can be nearly as challenging.

Ideally, the spine from the sacrum to the top of the neck would be straight, with no curves or twists.

This would reduce loading on muscles or ligaments and ensure that spinal joints are not impacting each other.

A man lying on the floor

Imagine you are lying on a hard floor on your side. Because your pelvis and shoulders are wider than your abdomen, your unsupported abdomen and lumbar spine will sag down in between the shoulders and pelvis. This creates curves and twisting forces between the vertebrae of the low back.

Now imagine the other way round, that you are lying on your side on a really saggy bed. Your wider pelvis and shoulders would fall into the mattress a lot more than your abdomen and lumbar spine, making the lumbar spine get pushed up. This is the opposite of what happens on a hard surface, but causes much the same problems.

Now it’s easy to see that the ideal bed is one where the amount of give for the pelvis and shoulders is just enough such that the spine remains suspended and straight between the two. This stops curving or twisting.

What’s the best mattress?

The ideal bed or mattress) has the following characteristics;

  • The right amount of give for your shape and body-weight.
  • The ability to alter its shape across the bed. This improves the ability of the bed to be best for your particular shape and body-weight.
  • Durable, so that it won’t warp after prolonged use.
  • A high comfort factor. This is a function of the first two points but is also affected by the cladding used (hessian, foam, memory foam, latex and so on).

It’s good to understand the differences between the various types of beds and how manufacturers have tried to achieve all the above.

Pocket spring mattresses

These, as the name implies, have individual springs enclosed and separated from each other in a lattice type of arrangement, and are enclosed in a range of materials. High-quality mattresses have many top-quality springs and a comfortable, thick topping. But even these might need regular turning to avoid warping. Note that modern steel springs are often of such quality that new beds can and should offer a no-turn guarantee.

Open spring mattresses

These are sprung mattresses where the springs are not enclosed. As a general rule, these are not recommended. The reason? A wave-like motion flows through the bed as you move on it.

Latex mattresses (Dunlopillo)

These are made from rubber tree sap. The material is expensive and heavy but works superbly from a comfort point of view. But, unlike with springs where resistance can be altered to provide varying degrees of give in the mattress, this is harder to do with latex.

Synthetic/man-made foam mattresses

There are lots of these around and most claim to be space-age, long-lasting ‘memory’ foam types of products. The points made about latex apply here. They work well but aren’t cheap. Now patents have expired, there’s more competition and prices have come down. Because they are viscoelastic in nature, they can trap heat.

Combination approaches

Some manufacturers combine pocket springs with a latex or foam cladding. This works really well as degrees of give can be set by the spring tension and comfort optimised by the use of latex or foam cladding.

Waterbeds

A mattress filled with water sounds weird but works surprisingly well and won’t leak. The volume of the water can be precisely altered to suit the individual, and water is an infinitely conforming surface for your bumps and lumps. They aren’t too heavy for the bedroom floor.

The bed base

The frame that the mattress rests on is either rigid, slatted, or sprung. The higher the quality of the mattress, the more likely the bed will have a sprung base. 

Things to think about

  • How much to spend? On balance, as much as you can afford. Perhaps £700+ for a large double mattress at a place like Costco or Eve Sleep? 
  • What type of bed? Difficult to say, but the right one of any type should get you an excellent sleep.
  • How big? A matter of personal preference!
  • What grade of mattress (hard, medium or soft)? You should try different grades, but, as a rule, heavy people with broad shoulders and pelvises need a softer mattress and vice versa.
  • Should a large bed be a complete mattress or two singles zipped together? Two singles allow each one to be different grades and makes for easier handling.
  • When you lie on a bed, test it by lying on both sides and not just on your front or back.
  • Ask about the turning schedule and whether it’s needed to maintain the guarantee. If you need to turn every month or so, it implies something negative about the durability of the mattress.
  • Don’t be misled by the term orthopaedic. It isn’t the case that a hard bed is better than a soft bed. This term is a marketing gimmick from the days were beds very saggy and got even worse as they aged.
  • Bear in mind that, as we age, we need a slightly softer mattress.
  • If you’ve bought a new mattress and feel it’s too hard for you, then don’t despair. There are a variety of overlay solutions that usually solve the problem.
  • Look out for beds that have a ‘no turn’ guarantee.