I am often asked by patients, particularly those with low back pain, about mattresses. What follows is what I’ve observed over many years, including from my own purchases. This excludes the Sleep Number air mattress, though some of these details may still be relevant. These are simply my opinions, and are based on my treatment of spine-related complaints. Results may vary.
Mattresses last about eight years, regardless of what warranty the store tries to sell you. If you do the math of approximately eight hours sleep a night, a third of our twenty-four-hour day, that’s four full months of every year supporting our bodyweight. All materials have their limits, and eight years seems to be it for most mattresses. This is not to say that you can’t have a mattress last longer; rather, if you’re having back pain that is otherwise unexplained, an old mattress may be the answer.
When awake, our muscles support our bodyweight. This requires awareness. When we are relaxed, such as being asleep, that awareness is lacking, so we hang on our ligaments. If the body is on an unsupportive surface, these ligaments are constantly under tension. This tension will ultimately overcome the strength of the ligament, and it will begin changing length. Eventually, this will result in what’s described as a sprain.
Along these lines, beginning with a soft or medium mattress isn’t a great idea. Soft and medium mattresses may not be sufficiently supportive, and will only get worse from there. If the mattress you’re looking at feels too hard, you can always buy a pillow-top cover. This will provide a little more cushion to accommodate the shape of the body. Then, when it wears out it can simply be replaced. This is much less expensive than another mattress.
A final difficulty in selecting a mattress is often testing it out. My solution has been to lay on it in the store for twenty minutes. The reason for this is two-fold. First, this is likely the longest that the staff will tolerate you testing it, so it’s the best you can do. Second, and more importantly, if it’s uncomfortable after twenty minutes, this is not the mattress for you.