Living with back pain can be debilitating, no matter the cause. The worst effect of back pain is that it can seriously inhibit your ability to maintain good health and activity levels: you don’t workout because of your back pain and you have back pain because you gain weight and don’t work out.
“Back pain is one of the top reasons that people begin to lose mobility in middle age. Pain can keep people from engaging in physical activity, making it more difficult for them to maintain a healthy weight and keep up their strength, stamina, and balance as they age. So treating and managing back pain that results from injuries or health problems is crucial for staying on the path of a healthy and active life. Considering that most people spend roughly a third of their lives lying in bed, choosing the right mattress is essential for managing low back pain. It can make the difference in whether you can sleep at night and function the next day.” (Harvard University)
If you don’t change your mattress often enough, or you have a mattress that has the wrong level of firmness or support, it could well be a contributing cause of your persistent back pain.
Different Ways a Mattress Can Cause Back Pain
If your back hurts when you wake up in the morning, but the pain slowly fades throughout the day, that is a sign that your mattress & sleeping habits could be causing back pain.
The age of your mattress can be contributing to your back pain. Anything over 8 years old is pretty much automatically too old, but there are other warning signs to let you know that it’s your mattress that could be causing your pain.
Signs that your mattress is too old:
- It sags in the middle and has generally lost its shape
- You consistently have pain first thing in the morning but if you stretch for about 15 minutes, it diminishes
- Your sleep is restless, with a lot of tossing and turning to find a comfortable position
Signs that your mattress is too soft:
- You end up with back pain in the morning because your spine has fallen out of alignment due to the lack of support from the mattress. This can be a function of the age of the mattress, or it might just be too soft.
Signs that your mattress is too firm:
- You feel pain and pressure in your hip joints that leads to lower back pain. Latex mattresses, for example, tend to be very firm and unless you’re carrying a lot of body weight, might not be the best choice.
Sleep Positions and Back Pain
In addition to the mattress itself, the position you sleep in can contribute to your back pain. TheMayo Clinic has a lot of information on positions, as well as a useful slide presentation online, but here’s the basics:
- If you sleep on your side, draw your legs up towards your chest and put a pillow between your legs. This helps to keep your knees, pelvis and hips all in alignment. If you side sleep, try and switch sides regularly, as this will help avoid a muscle imbalance that could contribute to pain. Make sure that the pillow you use for your head is thick enough to keep your spine and head aligned and neutral.
- If you sleep on your back, put a pillow under your knees to maintain the curve of your lower back (TIP: this is less of an issue for people with memory foam mattresses, as the mattress curves to support them. Add a memory foam pillow and you’re well on your way to a better sleep)
- If you sleep on your stomach, the first suggestion is to try to switch. It’s the hardest position on your back and neck. But if you can’t sleep any other way, add a pillow under your pelvis and lower abdomen and try sleeping without a pillow under your head, to maintain maximum spine alignment. Alternatively, make sure the pillow is low enough to fill the gap between your neck and the mattress and no more.
Optimal Sleep Position for Every Age, Stage and Body Type to Combat Back Pain
If you have kids, you will have had it drilled into you that babies need to sleep on their backs. This dramatically reduces the risk of SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome) and is generally considered to be better for their overall development. The longer you can encourage your child to sleep on their back, the better it is for their full body alignment.
Back sleeping is also recommended for ‘big kids’ (also known as teens, adults, and seniors), as it minimizes pressure on joints like hips by distributing your weight more evenly. This also helps you to keep your spine and internal organs in alignment.
For heavier people, with hips that are wider than their waists, it’s best to make sure that your mattress isn’t too firm so that your hips and waist remain aligned, particularly if you sleep on your side. That said, you don’t want it to be too soft either because the additional weight will cause you to sink too far into the mattress, ruining that all important spinal alignment. A mattress that curves and conforms to your body’s shape is ideal.
How a Memory Foam Mattress Can Combat Back Pain
“In the past, doctors often recommended very firm mattresses. But one survey of 268 people with low back pain found that those who slept on very hard mattresses had the poorest sleep quality. There was no difference in sleep quality between those who used medium-firm and firm mattresses.” (Harvard University)
Memory foam moulds to the shape of your body, so it supports you where you need it, even as you move around in the night. This tends to relieve pressures on points like your hips, and overall pain in your back and other parts of your body.
Particularly for back and side sleepers and women who are pregnant, memory foam has the greatest potential of giving you the rest you need because it fills those gaps between you and the mattress that can cause or exacerbate back pain.
The foam also absorbs movement better than a standard innerspring mattress, so if you sleep with someone who moves a lot, you’ll be disturbed a lot less. And while some people have noted that memory foam mattresses are too hot, which is a result of their ability to soften and take your shape, some manufacturers, including PerfectSense, have added a cooling layer to mitigate that issue.
Easing Back Pain, Beyond Getting a Better Mattress
The goal is to always keep your spine neutral; that is, not curved or out of alignment, while you’re sleeping. A memory foam mattress or a memory foam topper are good ways to start. Adding pillows, depending on your sleep position, as mentioned above, will also help.
Beyond your bedding, back pain is often a side effect of other issues, including weight gain. If you have suddenly put on some weight, you might find that your back pain increases as your body adjusts to compensating for the additional pounds.
Here are some simple ways to ease back pain, beyond new bedding:
- Exercise: strengthening your core muscles to support your back will help diminish your pain. If you’re not sure how to do this, consult a physiotherapist for the right exercises to help you. While your instinct might be to rest, movement is actually the best remedy for back pain.
- Maintain good posture, whether it’s walking around straight, sitting at a desk positioned to the right height and generally avoiding slouching.
- Make sure your bras are properly fitted: if you carry a lot of weight at the front, you can do a fair bit of damage to your back if you’re not getting the right support.
- If the pain is intense and focused, ice can reduce the inflammation as well as minimize the pain.
- Massage is a great way to soothe back pain, with weekly massages proving most beneficial for long term effects.
- When all else fails, nothing soothes like a warm bath. The heat will loosen the muscles and ease the tension that builds when you’re dealing with back pain.
If you think your mattress could be at the root of your back pain, buying a new mattress in a store, where you can only test it for a few minutes, probably won’t help you find the perfect fit. Instead, look for companies—like PerfectSense—that will let you ‘test drive’ your new mattress for 100 nights.
Waking Up Rested & Pain Free
Starting your morning fully rested and without pain can make a huge difference in how you start your day, as well as how you are able to tackle everything that needs to be done before you can comfortably slide back into bed again at the end of a long and productive day.