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Should My Mattress be Firm or Soft?

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Updated April 24, 2014

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Matress Firmness
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Question: Should My Mattress be Firm or Soft?

If you have chronic neck or back pain, you may know from first-hand experience how this condition can limit things like the number of hours of sleep you get per night, how restful the sleep you do get is, how well you function during your waking hours, and similar sleep-related states of being.

Related: Find a Sleeping Position Your Back Likes

Researchers from Ireland reviewed 17 studies looking at ways in which chronic low back pain affected participants’ ability to get a good night’s rest. The review, which was published in the Feb 2011 issue of Clinical Journal of Pain, confirmed that chronic low back pain may indeed disturb or otherwise affect the quality of sleep. The researchers also found that back pain may reduce sleep satisfaction, as well as the ability to fall asleep in the first place.

In other words, if you have chronic low back pain, chances are excellent you have a lot stacked against you at bed time.

Answer:

Mattress Shopping for Those With Bad Backs

If you are anything like me, you’re interested in minimizing the number of obstacles between you and your rest. And if you have a back problem, selecting the right mattress — in other words, matching your mattress choice to your back’s uniquely individual needs for support and comfort — may prove an excellent strategy.

To my mind, shopping carefully for a mattress could even be considered a component of your pain management plan. However, it’s a process, and to truly be a careful mattress shopper, you need to allot ample time. I, myself, start way in advance (like a year or two), so that I can, with minimal stress and disruption to my usual routine, enable full understanding of the available mattress choices, as well as how each interacts with my spine.

Related: How to Buy a Mattress for a Bad Back

Of the numerous considerations that come with mattress shopping, the question people most frequently want to know is: How hard, or soft, should my mattress be?

I asked Dr. Michael Perry, M.D., Medical Director of the Laser Spine Institute in Tampa, FL, for his recommendations. He advises staying away from either extreme (of hardness or softness) when selecting a mattress. The studies that have been done to date generally find that a medium-firm mattress does the trick with most types of back problems, and Dr. Perry says his clinical experience shows this as well.

Overall, there haven't been many studies in the area of mattress selection for bad backs. Just the same, here are a few research highlights that can further assist you in determining how hard or soft your bed should be, and the type of mattress that may deliver the support and comfort that is right for you. 

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