How to Choose the Best Mattress for Your Back Pain Needs

Backpain Mattress

I had severe back pain the first time I slept on a memory foam mattress.

My soft, comfortable mattress quickly became some torture device that caused an excruciating pain in my lower back that prevented me from getting any sleep.

My extensive research revealed several reasons why sleeping on a memory foam mattress may cause back pain:

The back can be injured by a memory foam mattress that is too soft, too firm, too thin, lacks support, is sagging, hasn’t been allowed to adjust to your body’s characteristics, or is not a good fit for your body weight, body type, or dominant sleeping position.

According to a study, when 100 medical residents switched from a ‘regular cotton mattress’ to a thin 10cm (3.9″) foam mattress for one night, 63% of the participants developed lower back pain, which went away for 61 participants upon switching back to the cotton mattress, and returned once the foam mattress was replaced once more [1].

It’s good to know that there are various steps you can take to reduce the chance of you buying a memory foam mattress that’s going to be uncomfortable.

My biggest change was switching from cheap memory foam mattresses that didn’t provide enough support to a high-quality hybrid memory foam mattress like the Puffy Lux Hybrid.

If you already have a memory foam mattress and it is hurting your back, there are a few things you can do to get rid of it.

The article offers multiple solutions for both scenarios.

Memory Foam Mattresses: 7 Causes Of Back Pain

The following are 7 reasons why you may get back pain from a memory foam mattress:

  • The mattress is too firm or soft.
  • The mattress doesn’t provide enough support.
  • The mattress is being used with the wrong type of base.
  • The mattress doesn’t keep you in good posture (common in front sleepers).
  • The mattress is causing your neck to be misaligned on the pillow.
  • The mattress has not yet adjusted to your body weight and shape.
  • The mattress is not compatible with your sleeping style.

Below are more details on each point.

But first, it’s essential to understand how memory foam’s elastic and pliable properties give it both potential benefits and drawbacks.

NASA developed memory foam under contract for use in their aircraft in 1966 and later adapted it for use in mattresses [2] with mixed results. 

One of the most popular and respected mattress brands in today’s market is Tempur-Pedic, the memory foam mattress pioneer.

A memory foam mattress is composed of polyurethane foam and other chemicals that are combined to produce a type of foam that changes shape in response to your weight and body heat so that it contours very closely to your body.

Due to this molding effect, memory foam mattresses are very good at removing discomfort on more prominent areas of the body, like your hips and shoulders, because, unlike a spring mattress, the foam actively eliminates pressure points.

This leads many memory foam mattress companies to make the biased, sweeping claim that ‘memory foam mattresses are good for your back or that they can cure back pain.

Moreover, although it’s certainly possible that memory foam mattresses may help to manage back pain in some users, it’s also possible that memory foam mattresses could cause back pain.

The reason for this is that mattress comfort is determined by various factors, including how your body weight, body shape, and dominant sleeping position interact with the mattress’s qualities and properties.

It is possible to end up with back pain if some aspects of the mattress do not match your physical characteristics or preferred sleeping style.

You can avoid or fix back pain caused by memory foam mattresses by considering seven reasons.

1: The Mattress is Too Firm or Soft

If you lie down on a mattress, its firmness describes how soft or hard it feels.

Don’t assume that all memory foam mattresses are soft.

It is true that memory foam sinks in deeper than upholstered layers of traditional spring mattresses and even some latex mattresses, but memory foam can still be firm.

The foam’s ILD values can be increased or decreased by the manufacturer to make it softer or firmer.

Imagine you have a memory foam mattress that is too firm. You might not sink deep enough into the materials, causing discomfort in your neck, hips, shoulders, lower back, and other areas due to compression forces that build up in your joints.

If your memory foam mattress is too soft, you may sink too far into it, causing your spine to shift out of alignment – which may cause back pain.

Solution #1: Choose the Right Firmness (Pre-Purchase)

If you have not yet purchased your memory foam mattress, you will need to choose the firmness that will help you feel comfortable on it.

Although firmness selection isn’t an exact science, the final comfort levels are determined by various factors.

Here’s a rough guide explaining which firmness of memory foam mattress works best with certain body types, body weights, and sleeping positions- although personal preferences can certainly override these guidelines:

  • Soft-softer- memory foam mattresses are typically better for side sleepers since they provide deeper cushioning to alleviate pressure on hips and shoulders. Additionally, skinny sleepers can benefit from the combination of extra pressure relief provided by the memory foam and reduced surface tension, whereas light-weight sleepers under 150 lbs can sink deeper into the materials for greater pressure relief on their spines and joints. Heavier sleepers best avoid softer memory foam mattresses if they weigh more than 230 lbs and are front or stomach sleepers, due to the possibility of greater sinkage that can lead to back pain.
  • Medium-In the 130 – 230 pound weight range, medium to medium-firm memory foam mattresses are typically well suited for side, front, and back sleepers. In a medium memory foam mattress, combination/restless sleepers may be able to change positions fairly smoothly.
  • Firm-Mattresses that are firm – firmer memory foam mattresses are ideal for stomach sleepers, combination sleepers, and people who weigh over 230 lbs because the greater surface tension will keep your hips aligned to protect against back pain, support more weight, and allow you to change positions more fluidly compared to softer memory foam mattresses.

Solution #2: Make the Mattress Softer (Post-Purchase)

In the event that you already own a memory foam mattress that is too firm, there are a few things you can do to soften it:

  • Use a Softer Mattress Topper-Put a soft mattress topper on top of your existing mattress to make it feel less firm – you can buy a mattress topper that’s softer than your current mattress. Natural mattress toppers, wool, down, and memory foam can make your mattress feel softer.
  • Break the mattress in-If your memory foam mattress is new, it will likely soften over time and with heat and pressure. You can soften your memory foam mattress by walking, rolling, or lying on it for about ten minutes to make it feel softer, feel less firm, and help your memory foam mattress expand fully.
  • Warm the room – Memory foam mattresses can freeze and become stiff in cold weather, making them feel like rocks. Increase the room temperature to at least 20°C (68°F) to see if that softens your memory foam mattress.

Solution #3: Make the Mattress Firmer (Post-Purchase)

Several methods can be used to make your memory foam mattress firmer if it’s too soft and causing back pain or other discomforts:

  • Use a firm mattress topper – you can add firmness to your existing mattress by adding a firm mattress topper. Dunlop latex or compact wool toppers have a naturally firmer bias than memory foam toppers.
  • Use a Firmer Base-Place your mattress on a solid platform base if you are currently using a slatted frame or damage/sagging base. Although putting your memory foam mattress on the floor will increase its firmness, there are several reasons not to do so, including the possible danger of voiding the warranty.
  • Put a sheet of plywood under the mattress – if you don’t want to put your mattress on the floor, and you don’t have a different frame, a sheet of plywood under the mattress may allow you to increase the firmness and temporarily counter the effects of a sagging memory foam mattress.
  • Cool the Room-Dropping the room temperature may help to firm up the materials, just as warming the room can soften your memory foam mattress. Sleeping temperatures should be around 16-18°C (60-65°F), while 12°C (53°F) is considered too cold [3] – so between those two ranges could strike a balance between comfort and firmness.
  • Rotate the mattress – if your mattress is starting to develop indentations, body impressions, dips, or valleys that are causing softness leading to back pain, then rotating the mattress 180 degrees may help to fix the issue temporarily. Most memory foam mattresses, however, should not be flipped unless your mattress is double-sided since they usually have softer foam on top and denser foam underneath. By turning it over, the mattress may become uncomfortable and the warranty will be void.

2: There’s Not Enough Support

Firmness and support

Lack of support is one of the main causes of back pain caused by memory foam mattresses.

Mattress firmness is not the same as a mattress support.

When you initially lie on a mattress, you will experience either a ‘hard’ or a ‘soft’ feeling.

When it comes to supporting, it is the degree to which the mattress can support your spine, promote good posture, and keep your back and joints pain-free.

Mattress firmness and feel are usually determined by the upper comfort layer, while mattress support is determined mainly by the lower support core (see image below) – although the two can influence each other to a certain extent.

A sagging mattress is usually the cause of poor mattress support.

The mattress may sag due to too much weight, degradation of the materials, manufacturer defects, poor design, or a combination of these factors.

Solution – Get the Right Amount of Support

You can achieve the right amount of support for your memory foam mattress by following these steps:

  • More support for heavier weights- if you weigh over 230 lbs, then you’ll want to check that your all-foam, the memory foam mattress can hold this weight (like Amerisleep’s memory foam rage). Otherwise, you might want to consider a hybrid design, where the base of the mattress is made from coils for more robust support, and the upper comfort layer is made from memory foam to relieve pressure.
  • Denser foam-If you choose a foam mattress, make sure the base layer is made of high-density foam since lower-density foam tends to degrade more quickly and lead to sagging. Typically, polyfoam is used in the base layers rather than memory foam, so look for a minimum density of 1.7 PCF for polyfoam.
  • Replace a sagging mattress – if your memory foam mattress is visibly sagging or sinks too much in the middle, you are more likely to experience back pain. During the warranty period, if the mattress is sagging or indenting, you might be able to get a replacement or have it repaired if the manufacturer is at fault. You should replace your memory foam mattress with one that won’t sag as quickly if it is more than 5-7 years old.

3: You’re Using the Wrong Base

You might be experiencing back pain if you’ve just bought a new memory foam mattress and placed it on your existing base. The lack of compatibility may be causing slight sagging.

Memory foam mattresses typically don’t do well on slatted bases unless the gaps between the slats are less than 3-4 inches.

The foam may push through too wide gaps and undermine the support if there are too many voids.

Solution – Use a Compatible Base

To find out which bases are compatible with memory foam mattresses, check the warranty or manufacturer’s guidelines.

Third-party sellers who claim that any base can be used should be avoided.

You can often bundle in a compatible base on the manufacturer’s website to avoid sagging and voiding the warranty.

4: You’re Sleeping On Your Front

According to many medical experts, sleeping on your stomach/front is the worst position for preventing back pain and may actually cause back pain due to the strain it places on your back, spine, and neck [3].

The risk of back pain increases when you sleep on your front in a memory foam mattress since the deeper compression afforded by memory foam means that your hips are somewhat more likely to shift out of alignment compared to the thinner and less compressive upholstered top layer found on a regular spring mattress.

Those who weigh over 230 lbs on their stomachs are most at risk of back pain when sleeping in a memory foam mattress because of the sinkage issue.

Solution #1: Switch Positions

Try sleeping on your side if you’re a front sleeper with a memory foam mattress that causes you back pain.

You might find it useful to sleep on your side with a pillow between your knees and adopt the leg position shown in the video below:

Solution #2: Consider a Different Mattress

If you are over 230 lbs and a stomach sleeper, you still haven’t bought a mattress. If that is the case, you might want to consider a firmer memory foam mattress designed to support heavier weights (such as Amerisleep’s AS1 or AS2 memory foam mattresses).

If you prefer a firmer mattress, you might want to look for a spring or hybrid mattress with coils in the support core to guard against sinkage – for example, see some of the best mattresses without memory foam.

5: Excessive Sinkage

After using your old pillows with your new memory foam mattress, have you suddenly developed upper back pain and/or neck ache?

The pain may arise because while your pillow loft (height) remains the same, the memory foam allows you to sink further into the mattress, which will put your neck out of alignment.

Solution – Reduce the Pillow Height

To compensate for the extra sinkage, using fewer pillows or a thinner pillow may help realign your neck and reduce the pain.

6: Not Enough Time Has Passed

It takes up to 30 days for a new memory foam mattress to ‘break in’ and adjust to your body weight, body type, and preferred sleeping position.

This is why many sleep trials stipulate that you cannot return the mattress until this 30-night adjustment window has passed.

Solution: Adjust or Return

If you’re still not satisfied with the mattress after 30 nights, you can return it for a refund and see if your back pain subsides.

However, spending 30 nights in agony isn’t recommended.

Hence, if you have no choice but to sleep on the mattress, you might want to consider some of the adjustment strategies mentioned in this guide to cope in the meantime.

Try using a mattress topper, walking or rolling on the mattress to break it in, heating or cooling the room, or switching your sleeping position.

7: Incompatibility

If you have tried everything that I have mentioned here that’s possible for your situation and you still have back pain, then it might be that you’re not well suited to memory foam mattresses – or that the problem isn’t with the mattress.

Solution: Look For an Alternative

Whenever you experience back pain, you should consult a doctor to determine what’s causing it.

If, however, the pain starts after waking and gradually fades throughout the day or if your mattress is more than 8 years old, it could be the mattress.

If you’re in the market for a new memory foam mattress, I recommend Tempur-Pedic – check out my Tempur-Pedic mattress reviews to help you choose.

If, however, your current memory foam mattress is new and you hate it, you should return it according to the manufacturer/retailer’s return policy and search for an alternative.

You might prefer a traditional spring, all-latex, or hybrid mattress if you don’t like memory foam.

Here Are Some FAQ:

What Causes Back Pain at Night?

There are a number of things that can cause back pain at night. One common cause is sleeping in an uncomfortable position. This can put strain on the back and lead to pain. Another common cause is a build-up of tension during the day. This can cause the muscles in the back to tighten up, leading to pain. Additionally, some medical conditions can cause back pain, such as arthritis or a herniated disc. If you’re experiencing back pain at night, it’s important to see a doctor to rule out any serious causes.

How Can You Tell That Your Mattress is Causing Back Pain?

Answer: If you’re waking up with back pain, it’s likely that your mattress is causing it. Sleeping on a crappy mattress can cause back pain because it throws off your alignment and creates pressure points.
Pressure points are areas of the body that receive more pressure than other areas, and they can cause pain and discomfort. When you’re sleeping, your weight is distributed evenly across your entire body. But if you’re sleeping on an old, worn-out mattress, your weight will be concentrated in certain areas, which can lead to pain in those areas.
A good way to tell if your mattress is causing back pain is to measure how long you sleep before waking up with back pain. If you’re only sleeping for a few

Is Memory Foam Good For Your Back?

Yes, memory foam is good for your back because it contours to the shape of your body and provides support where you need it most. Additionally, memory foam is known for being extremely comfortable, so you can rest assured that you’ll be getting a good night’s sleep.

Brands like Puffy use high-quality and high-density foams to guard against the sagging and material degradation that’s common in cheaper memory foam mattresses – check out my Puffy Lux Hybrid review here.

Alternatively, if you want a firmer mattress with more support and bounce then I personally recommend the Ghostbed Mattress

And if you follow the points made in this article in regards to choosing the right level of firmness, getting sufficient support, and using the right type of base, then the chance of you being happy with a memory foam mattress could increase.

Are Mattress Toppers Bad For Your Back?

There is no definitive answer to this question as it depends on the individual and their particular back issue. Some people find that mattress toppers help relieve back pain, while others find that they make it worse. It is advisable to consult with a doctor or physical therapist to get their professional opinion before purchasing a mattress topper.

Source and references

[1] Europe PMC – The Foam Mattress-Back Syndrome. 

[2] Wikipedia – Memory Foam. 

[3] Healthline – Is It Bad to Sleep on Your Stomach? 

Mattress Buzz is reader supported. When you buy a product through our links we may earn an affiliate commission.

Leave a Comment