Skip to main content

Is a Firm Mattress Better For Your Back?

Reginald has been a sleep specialist for the past 20 years, training new and veteran associates in the retail mattress industry.


Is a Firm Mattress Better For Your Back?

When one goes to bed, the hope is that we will have a restful sleep. We don't want interruptions but want a sleep that will rejuvenate our body for the next day. Eight hours of restful sleep should do the trick. In many cases, we end up with fewer sleep hours and a sore back or sore muscles. The answer to the question: Is a Firm Mattress Better For Your Back? It is a Yes and No. Read further to learn about our sleep habits and the bad information we accumulate over time from various sources.

A Few Statistics!

The main reason for writing this article is to clear up a few misconceptions about how we sleep. Actually, we could say, "How we don't sleep!" Logic sometimes fails us, and the concept that tells us that we should sleep on a firm mattress couldn't be further from the truth. It's only half of the equation.

Physicians and other medical specialists have determined that laying on one's side is the most common sleeping position—approximately 72% of people surveyed. That is not to say that medical professionals endorse sleeping in this position, but they recognize that it is the popular way people sleep. Most medical experts also claim that sleeping on your back is more beneficial for a healthier sleep.

If we are to restful sleep as a side sleeper, the first thing to understand is the difference between the words support and comfort. I like to think of these two words in a simple equation: Support + Comfort = Restful Sleep.

It is effortless for a person to think about these two words as meaning they need to get a firm mattress. This is where we need to be smarter. If you are a side sleeper, you most likely will be more comfortable on a mattress with contour. This type of mattress is called a plush top or pillow top.

If you are strictly a back sleeper, you will probably prefer a firm feeling mattress. The support should be the same in both types of sets. The difference is the top layers of material.

This is where the misconception comes into play. You are talking to a friend or relative and complaining that you wake up with a bad back. Your friend tells you that you should get a firm mattress for your back. At the time, this advice makes great sense to you, but when you go to purchase that mattress, this is what happens. You tell the salesperson that you are looking for a firm set when you actually need a softer set because you are a side sleeper.

Let's Look at It Another Way

Support for your mattress comes from what is on the bottom portion of that mattress. This might be a steel coil system, a solid foam core, or a rubber bladder filled with air or water. Indeed, it is necessary to seek out a mattress with great support or (using the consumer lingo) "firm" support, but as will be explained, there are two parts to the mattress construction. Support also comes from what is under the mattress itself. This would be a boxspring (steel is best) or a platform bed. Think of the support system of your mattress set like the foundation of your house. With a good solid foundation, your house will last for years and years.

Comfort is the second part of the equation and comes from the materials upholstered into the top of the mattress, such as poly foams, memory foam, latex foam, silk, wool, cotton, and the list goes on. So, it makes sense to find the best mattress for your comfort level. Insist on having your salesperson show you exactly what is in the mattress for support and comfort. This would include a full demonstration of an innerspring or the various types of innerspring available to you and or the various types of foams and other materials.

How to Determine Your Preferred Mattress Comfort Level

There are a few simple ways to determine your comfort level when selecting the best comfort level.

  1. Most side sleepers prefer a mattress with a bit of contour to it. Avoid the mattresses that feel too firm.
  2. You must do the lay-down test, or what I call the 'Goldilocks' test, on a few mattresses in either the plush level or the pillow top level.
  3. Because we spend 1/3 of our lives sleeping, you will want to spend time on this project to make the right choice. Make sure you are trying these with your sleep partner. You are wasting your time if you do this without him or her.
  4. Your body will accept or reject a mattress in a matter of 20 to 30 seconds. This doesn't mean that you have found the right one. It means that if your body accepts a particular model, then you are on the right track. When you find one that you like, you are half of the way there. Stay with that type of comfort and tweak your comfort level until your body says, "Ahhh."
  5. If you are a back sleeper, you need to try mattresses with a firm comfort level. Again, your body will tell you if it is close or not.

Bedding Store


Types of Mattresses

Because approximately 72% of people sleep on their sides, this gives the manufacturing industry mattresses a wide spectrum of comfort levels to produce for the consumer. They categorize these choices into two levels of comfort called plush or pillow top. The major difference between a plush and a pillow top is the amount of 'fill' put into the pillow top. Most pillow-top mattresses will tend to be on the softer end of the comfort spectrum.

You may be wondering why there's such a large number of choices. This is because every person has a different comfort level and the different materials that can be put into the top of the mattress give the consumer a greater amount of choices. So, when going into a mattress store, you will see what could be an overwhelming amount of mattress choices. It is important, though, to know and understand the different types available to you before you go out searching. Below is a list of the most common types.

Hybrid Mattress

Many companies now have what is called the "hybrid mattress," which, in my opinion, is the best of both worlds. A good hybrid will have memory foam and or latex on the top for comfort and a pocketed coil system on the bottom for support. If you go to a chiropractor, they usually work to adjust your spine. A pocketed coil works in much the same manner in that it will adjust to your spine as you move in the bed, giving you correct spinal alignment. Working with either latex foam or memory foam truly gives you the best of both worlds. Again, the best mattress for side sleepers in a hybrid mattress will be determined by how it feels to you.



Innerspring or Coil System

Every mattress manufacturer produces sets with an innerspring or coil system. Like most things that you buy today, there are some good innerspring as well as bad innerspring. This is the most popular type of mattress; therefore, ensure that your salesperson gives you a thorough explanation of the coil or innerspring systems on the floor.

Memory Foam

When talking about the best mattress for side sleepers, this type of mattress results from science at its best. Viscoelastic foam, better known as memory foam, was invented back in the '70s by a Swedish chemist and further developed for NASA's other science applications later in that decade. Its pressure-relieving qualities and long-lasting effect make it a trendy material to sleep on. Memory foam contours to you as you will feel as if you are sleeping in the bed instead of sleeping on the bed. It also has several firmness and softness levels for side sleepers.

Latex Foam

Another type that is good for pressure relief is latex foam. This foam has two separate characteristics – natural latex and synthetic latex. Natural latex comes from the rubber tree, whereas synthetic latex is a human-made product. This type of foam, unlike memory foam, will give you the feeling of sleeping on the bed as opposed to sleeping in the bed.
Good natural latex will be on the more expensive side, but if you like that feel for comfort, it is well worth the price because it will last for years and years.

Air and Waterbed Mattresses

Air Mattress

A few air mattress companies around today offer their unique approach to comfort and support for side sleepers. These beds have an air chamber that is filled with air that you can adjust as you wish. Not as popular as the others on the list because of the expense and the possibility of its mechanics breaking down sooner than later. Many do have good comfort with the added adjustability in comfort.

Waterbed Mattress

This is the least popular of all types. Back in the 1970s, the waterbed mattress was a trendy sleep surface. It was new, different, and innovative. Due to the new technology and strides in the mattress industry, the waterbed is not as popular as it once was. Good support and many have good comfort but are expensive to operate, and many places have restrictions.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2020 Reginald Thomas

Related Articles