All Through the Night
Last week, I wrote about the importance of a good night's sleep for rejuvenation and health. Of course, besides getting enough sleep, the key to a good night's sleep is having the right mattress. How do you know if "memory foam," pocketed coils" or "air technology" is right for you? "The simple answer is -- lie down and see," says David Borenstein, MD, author of Back in Control! A Conventional and Complementary Prescription for Eliminating Back Pain. "Of course, with the wide selection out there, that could take a while." The following guide will get you started. Once you've narrowed your choices, be sure to try out each one by lying on your back for at least five minutes, says Dr. Borenstein. "A mattress may feel great initially, but once you lie on it for several minutes, you may notice that your hips start to ache or your back gets tight. Give your body time to settle into it."
Because 80% of the population will complain of back pain at some point in their lives, the first thing many people wonder about is what type of mattress is best for them. The pat answer used to be "the firmer the better." But a new study of more than 300 men and women with chronic low-back pain reported that those who slept on a medium-firm mattress for 90 days were twice as likely to say they felt less back pain and needed even fewer painkillers than those who slept on a firm mattress for the same period. "It comes down to whether you're more comfortable with your spine in the natural 'S' curve position that every spine has, or whether you feel better with it a little flattened out," says Dr. Borenstein. "If lying on your back with your legs perfectly straight is comfortable for you, you'll probably like a firmer mattress because it maintains the natural curvature of your back. If you're more comfortable when you bend your knees, it means you prefer to flatten your spine and relieve some of the pressure. In that case, go with a mattress that has some 'give' so your back can sink down a little." If you have pain in the upper back or neck, a slightly softer mattress will allow your head and upper back to sink into the bed for better support and pressure relief there, too. Proper pillow support also is important for people with neck pain. You want a pillow that allows your head to be naturally aligned with your back -- the way it is when you are standing upright. It shouldn't be so firm that your head flexes forward or so soft that your head extends too far back.
The bedding world has a language all its own to describe the various mattress materials, types and configurations. Here's what it all means:
*Innerspring: This is the most popular type of mattress. It uses tempered steel coils along with insulation and cushioning. A salesperson may try to sell you on a mattress based on "coil counts" or "wire gauges" (meaning the thickness of the springs -- the lower the number, the thicker the steel), but don't buy it. A higher coil count or lower wire gauge doesn't automatically make a better bed. The most important factor is that the mattress uses "pocketed coil spring technology," meaning that the springs are individually pocketed to minimize motion transfer when you move, which you do 60 to 70 times a night.
*Foam: Solid foam mattresses have been around for decades. These beds are now available with "viscoelastic" memory foam technology, which allows the bed to mold to the contour of your body by softening in response to your body heat and weight. This is only a good choice if you don't change your sleep position often. Downside: They can be pricey compared with the other types.
*Air technology: This is the new kid on the block. These mattresses feature air-filled chambers that you can "pump up" or "deflate" as you see fit to adjust the firmness of the bed to your liking. (These beds generally allow you to set each side of the bed separately, so everyone is happy.) "These can be a great choice for people who have pain now and then," says Dr. Borenstein. "You can set it firm when you're feeling good, and soften it if you strain your back shoveling snow, for example."
*Pillowtops: Some beds feature a soft layer of material sewn to the top of the mattress to make it feel plusher. These "pillowtops" generally make the mattress more expensive and are strictly a matter of personal choice. The cushioning feel is separate from the firmness of the mattress that works best for you.
*Adjustable: Similar to a hospital bed, these mattresses allow the sleeper to raise the head and foot of the bed for the most comfortable position. "Generally speaking, you only need an adjustable bed if you have a medical condition that makes it difficult for you to get in and out of bed," says Dr. Borenstein.
*Water: Wildly popular in the 1970s and 1980s, water beds are not as common as they once were. Unlike the original, sloshing, constant motion water mattresses of the past, today's water beds are designed like traditional mattress/box spring beds and combine water-filled cores with layers of upholstery for support and comfort. "They're fine for people with healthy backs," says Dr. Borenstein, "but if you have pain or tightness, you'll want more support."
OTHER MATTRESS DECISIONS
*Thickness: Super-thick mattresses currently are the rage. Some are so lofty you can barely see the headboard. Again, this is a matter of personal preference. Experts agree that a thicker mattress isn't necessarily more comfortable or durable.
*Foundation: Each mattress is paired with a specific box spring for the best support. Be sure, however, to buy the pair rather than to mix and match a mattress with a different box spring. As for those with platform beds that don't take a box spring? The better the quality of the mattress, the better you'll feel. So, get the best you can afford.