Feature Archive

Can a Mattress Improve Your Health?

Newer, more expensive mattresses aren't all they claim to be.

By Leanna Skarnulis
WebMD Feature

Reviewed By Charlotte Grayson

Looking for relief from arthritis, back pain, hiatal hernia, varicose veins, asthma, heartburn, or insomnia? You may be tempted to invest in one of the newer "sleep systems" you've seen advertised, such as adjustable beds, Sleep Number beds, and memory foam mattresses. But can they deliver anything better than a traditional bed? Or would you be better off taking the money and going on a luxury cruise?

"What's your health worth?" If a salesman pops that question, be forewarned. WebMD talked to four experts who say they know of no independent studies showing any bed or mattress has healing powers.

"Consumers shouldn't be lured by claims of therapeutic benefits for beds," says Charles Cefalu, MD, spokesman for the American Geriatrics Society. He says that the only beds that can claim to be therapeutic are prescribed by physicians for home use and have the same technology as therapeutic beds used in hospitals to treat burn victims.

He says that that these beds are made to prevent bed sores in people who can not move by themselves and are at risk for skin breakdown and people who maybe have dementia or other chronic illnesses. "Other than for patients at risk for skin breakdown or who already have skin breakdown, there are no studies of beds I know of that are independently and scientifically done without commercial bias."

What's Wrong With an Ordinary Flat Bed?

A maker of adjustable beds say that because our legs are curved and our backs are 'S' shaped flat beds create gaps, and where there is no support muscles are in a state of tension. According to the manufacture, it is because of this that when we sleep on our back on flat bed we continually move to stay comfortable.

But according to Roger Herr, PT, "Normally body padding and the give of the mattress helps us adjust, and moving about is just normal sleep." Herr is president of the American Physical Therapy Association Home Health section.

"We need to be able to roll over and change sides. To program a bed's position might be good, but it also might not be your natural rhythm."

Adjustable beds are like hospital beds which enable you to elevate your legs or upper body. "Patients I know who use them have conditions like hypertension, circulation problems, decubitus ulcers, or congestive heart failure, and they find it difficult to sleep on a flat bed," says Jeffrey K. Bergin, DC, dean at the National University of Health Sciences in Lombard, Ill.

But he also says, "You can mimic the features of an adjustable bed by bolstering it with pillows. It's just easier to push a button."

"If a special bed does allow elevation, that would be one scientific reason to recommend it," says Cefalu. He says people with asthma, acid reflux disorder, heart failure, or chronic lung disease need to elevate the head of the bed. "Ask your physician what's best. I know of no studies to show benefits of special beds that you can't accomplish with a regular bed and some modifications."

Does the sleeping surface make a difference in sleep disorders, such as sleep apnea, snoring, fibromyalgia, or insomnia? Clete A. Kushida, MD, PhD, director of the Center for Human Sleep Research at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif., says probably the only group affected would be people with insomnia. "They're sensitive to distractions."

He adds, "If you feel you've selected a comfortable bed, but your sleep is disrupted, talk with your primary care physician or a sleep center. You could have sleep apnea or restless leg syndrome or periodic leg movements that cause your sleep to be fragmented."

Heat and Massage

Heat and massage are the bells and whistles of the bedding lines. One manufacturer claims temporary relief from symptoms of low back pain, poor local blood circulation of the legs, edema or swelling of the legs, minor aches and pains caused by muscular fatigue or overexertion, nighttime heartburn, and simple tension. "That's probably true," says Cefalu. "Anytime you add heat or vibration it does change circulation, whether you're doing it with a mattress or sitting in a chair and using a heating pad and vibrator. The effects of heat and vibration are the same no matter where you do it."

The Myth Behind: "The Firmer the Mattress, the Better"

Some people love a hard mattress and can even get comfortable on a futon or the floor. But if you wake up feeling battered, you're not doing your body any favor. "There's no truth to the adage that a harder bed is better," says Bergin. "Especially as we get older we need both support and relief from pressure."

"We used to think waterbeds were the best bed, and for the majority of individuals, they probably are. They're especially good for people who have diabetes and can develop ulcers from pressure. But as you get older, a waterbed doesn't provide adequate support."

Bergin says the memory foam mattress is best for anyone with back pain or osteoarthritis. The term "memory foam" is often misunderstood. It doesn't mean the mattress remembers the contours of your body but that the mattress returns to its original flat plane once you get up. Memory foam is made of heat and pressure sensitive material that responds to your body temperature and conforms to near-perfect pressure, weight distribution, and support.

"It gets as close to weightless sleep as possible," says Bergin. "It supports the entire body at all the pressure points as though you're floating. It really is a remarkable discovery. Unfortunately a high-quality mattress that will last 20 years without being flipped is high priced, about $1,800 to $2,500."

He recently bought a Tempur-Pedic mattress, which uses the memory foam developed by NASA. "NASA put it in seats to absorb G-forces so it doesn't hurt. When G-forces push the astronaut into the seat, the material gives. We're bombarded by G-forces when we sleep, and memory foam allows the heavier or denser parts of the body to sink into the foam.

A number of manufacturers make memory foam mattresses or top conventional mattresses with a layer of it.

Like foam, air also absorbs rather than resists pressure to provide a sleeping surface that accepts your body contours and distributes pressure. Sleep Number and similar beds enable a couple to adjust firmness on each side of the bed, putting an end to arguments about how firm a mattress to buy. "Sleeping on air does offer good support, and if you can adjust the firmness, that's even better," says Bergin.

Firm rather than soft is generally better for people with disc pathology or arthritis, says Cefalu. "You want them to be on a fairly firm mattress to prevent laxity in the joints. A standard Posturepedic mattress will provide what they need. And people with cervical arthritis should avoid using too many pillows."

Comfort Rules

"What we generally recommend is for people looking at new mattresses to try as many surfaces as possible," says Kushida. "There's so much individual variation."

Allow yourself plenty of time to shop. Tell the salesperson to go away while you lie down for 15 to 20 minutes, says Bergin.

"How does the mattress feel in terms of comfort level and support?" says Herr. "Also does it dissipate heat well? If you feel your body heat is transferred too quickly or you're retaining heat, you may need to compensate with a mattress pad."

And if you have a bed partner, try out the bed together. If one person moves, does it disturb the other? Also, if the mattress has adjustable firmness, make certain there's not a tendency for the person on the firmer side to roll toward the softer side.

If your present mattress is serviceable but uncomfortable, a memory foam or down-filled topper might do the trick. Many of these products are advertised for sale by calling an 800 number. Be sure they offer a comfort guarantee so you can return the product for a refund if you're not satisfied.

Finding the product to suit your comfort and pocketbook can be challenging. According to a University of California at Berkeley Wellness Letter article, the idea there's one best bed exists mainly in ad copy. The article goes on to state, "There is no scientific consensus on what makes a good mattress. This is one category in which what feels good is good."

Published April 5, 2004.

Medically updated June 27, 2005.


SOURCES: University of California at Berkeley Wellness Letter, "Once Upon a Mattress," University of California, Nov. 1999. Jeffrey K. Bergin, DC, dean, National University of Health Sciences, Lombard, Ill. Charles Cefalu, MD, professor; chief, geriatric medicine, department of family medicine, Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center, New Orleans; spokesman, American Geriatrics Society.Roger Herr, PT, New York; president, Home Health section, American Physical Therapy Association. Clete A. Kushida, MD, PhD, director, Center for Human Sleep Research, Stanford University, Palo Alto, Calif.

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Last Editorial Review: 6/27/2005 7:44:42 PM