Debunking the Firm Mattress Myth

Your Back Pain Relief May Be Softer Than You Think

Selecting the right mattress is important for everyone, but it’s even more critical for those who suffer from back pain. Commonly held belief has always been that a firm mattress is the best option for alleviating back pain, but today’s science is showing that this may not always be the case. Back pain is a huge problem in this country, affecting approximately 31 million Americans at any given time. Up to 80% of the population will experience back pain at some time in their lives1 – globally, this amounts to 540 million people who suffer from this malady.2

The Firm Mattress

While for decades millions have flocked to firm mattress products seeking relief, industry experts and sleep scientists are now discovering that this option may actually cause even more discomfort. The rationale behind this thinking is that a firm mattress will provide better support, and, it logically makes sense because when you lie on the floor, back pain often subsides. But what most don’t realize is that this relief comes from spinal compression that can squeeze the disks and put pressure on nerve endings, so temporary pain relief from the pressure is felt. When this same compression is extended over hours (such as during sleep) it can actually restrict blood flow and greatly reduce the ability for the disks and muscles to repair themselves. This exacerbates back soreness and can potentially even make it worse.


When it comes to mattresses, there is little science devoted to the relationship between back pain and the ability of mattresses to conform to the needs of the sufferer. However, there is one study indicating that people sleep better on a medium-firm mattress. In fact, this research actually asked participants what they thought they slept better on, and unsurprisingly, the mattress with more comfort beat the firmer one.

The Solution

Fortunately, for those with back pain, there are now many new mattress innovations that are not simply focused on providing a firm or soft experience anymore. Instead, they have begun to approach sleep as a science and are able to incorporate features that lead to an ideal sleep experience. This includes providing a balance of softness and firmness where needed to deliver optimal spinal alignment and back support. This can also include zoning technologies that directly target core areas of the body to deliver relief from pressure & pain to mitigate tossing & turning and provide less disruptive sleep.

These latest sleep technologies can go a long way in addressing the root causes of back pain, while also providing users with a deeper more restful sleep. They are able to conform to the body and allow the person to sleep on their side comfortably, which is the best position to sleep in order to alleviate chronic or even occasional pain.

Mattress Selection

Since a quality mattress can be critical to recovery and to alleviating discomfort, here are a couple of tips to keep in mind.

  • Recognize your personal preferences. Think about what would be most comfortable for side sleeping, and where you feel pain. If it’s in your lower or upper back, then look for products specifically designed to support your spine. A “comfortable” mattress is not enough, but it must provide comfort along with the proper zoning solutions for proper back support.
  • Take the time to understand the features of the mattress. In years past, mattresses were essentially, all the same, using a coil and box spring format. Today, there are many memory foam style options and some that now incorporate sleep science technologies that address issues like pain and discomfort.
  • Remember that a higher price doesn’t always mean higher quality. Even some of the most technologically advanced mattresses are more affordable than ever before. Therefore, you don’t have to spend a lot of money to get a quality mattress. Be sure to evaluate design features and benefits of the product rather than going for a high price or big brand name.
  • Try before you buy. Most manufacturers offer their mattresses with a trial which allows customers to sleep on a new mattress for a period of time before they have to commit to it long term. But remember that sleeping on a mattress for a night or two does not truly indicate whether it is the best option for you. Look for those that allow a 60-day trial or more. Doing this can help you find the optimal mattress that meets your needs and preferences.

Remember, solutions for overcoming back pain are now even more accessible and affordable than you think. Moreover, a good mattress can go a long way in helping to provide rest, recovery and relief. However, don’t just opt for a firm one because it’s been the historical thing to do. Instead, recognize that knowledge about sleep has come a long way and a mattress’s level of firmness is only one variable that should be considered when you are selecting the best one to treat your back. 

Philip Shen is the Founder and CEO of Sleep Choices. He is a 30-year bedding industry veteran with a 20-year history at Leggett & Platt, a Fortune 500 company, and the world’s largest manufacturer and supplier to the mattress and furniture industry. With extensive experience working with industry experts and compatriots, Philip’s interest is to offer best practices in mattress designs.

1 American Chiropractic Association (n.d.) Back Pain Facts and Statistics.

2 Healio (2018) More than 1 in 10 worldwide suffer lower back pain

3 Eric Hinshaw Back Pain? Don’t Think Firm   

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