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Mattress Ratings > Mattresses and Bad Back Problems

Mattresses and (Back) Pain Relief

Unbiased Comparisons Based on 21,700+ Owner Experiences

October 28, 2015

Some mattress types perform significantly better than others in preventing / relieving pain, including back, hip and shoulder pain.

Before we discuss which mattress types are best for pain reduction and prevention, some key terms are important to understand. These terms are support, conformability and firmness.

Mattress Support

"Support" refers to how well a mattress keeps the sleeper's body on a flat and level plane, as opposed to allowing part of the body to be lower or higher than the rest.

Owner experience data shows that support is a key factor in preventing and alleviating pain, especially back pain.

Support can be undermined by excessive softness – but it is most often undermined by sagging of the mattress. Sagging is the top complaint of mattress owners overall with at least 20% reporting a significant problem.

Sagging occurs when part of a mattress, usually the middle, becomes compressed and lower than the rest. Sagging often puts a person's back into an unnatural position, especially for side and stomach sleepers. Consequently, mattress owner experience data shows a clear connection between sagging and pain, especially back pain.

The greater the sagging depth the more likely it is that sagging will cause a person to have discomfort or pain in bed and possibly out of bed.

mattress pain sagging comparison chart

It should be noted that despite the fact that back pain for many people may occur with less than 1.5 inches of sagging depth, many mattress warranties cover sagging only if it has a depth greater than 1.5 inches.

Mattress Conformability

"Conformability" refers to how well a mattress conforms or molds to the contours of a person's body. A mattress has good conformability if all of one's body is supported equally by the mattress.

A lack of conformability means there are gaps in support. The result can be that at least one part of the body – such as the lower back – is placed in an unsupported, unnatural and therefore stressed position which can cause pain.

A lack of conformability also often results in some parts of the body – namely shoulders and hips of side sleepers – feeling more pressure than other parts because of unequal support. Such pressure can be a source of significant discomfort.

Mattress Firmness

Having the right firmness is an important factor in preventing / relieving pain.

Based on our collected owner experience data, the chart below shows how people as a group overall rate mattress firmness in regard to pain-relief effectiveness.

mattress firmness pain comparison chart

Learn more: mattress firmness: what you should know.

Mattress Firmness and Sleeping Positions

To minimize pain and maximize comfort, it is important to have a mattress with a firmness level that is suitable for your sleeping position(s).

The table below shows how people as a group overall rate the suitability of mattress firmness levels for the three main sleeping positions. Keep in mind that your individual needs and preferences may differ from these findings.

  Back Sleeping Side Sleeping Stomach Sleeping
Soft C+ B+ D+
Medium a b A-
Firm B d C-

Mattress Types & Pain Relief / Prevention

The graph below shows the pain-relieving ability of the different mattress types based on owner experience data. The types that are better at reducing (back, hip and shoulder) pain are more supportive, less likely to sag and more likely to have effective conformability. Keep in mind that the chart represents what is often but not always the case; a particular brand, model or individual mattress may go against these findings somewhat.

mattress types pain comparison chart


Airbeds tend to be effective in preventing and reducing pain, especially back pain. Sagging and loss of support is usually less of a problem with airbeds compared to most other bed types. The air chambers inside an airbed provide fair or better conformability as well as allow for adjustable firmness to suit personal preference and sleeping position. Airbed models, however, with little or no comfort layer are often too firm for most side sleepers.

Support Good to Excellent
Conformability Good to Fair
Firmness Variable

Memory Foam

Memory foam mattresses tend to be effective in preventing or reducing pain. While the beds can develop problems (sagging, excessive softness, and loss of support) these problems tend to not be as common or serious as they can be with most other mattress types. Memory foam also tends to provide good to excellent conformability, especially memory foam of higher density.

Support Good to Fair
Conformability Good to Excellent
Firmness Soft to Firm


Latex mattresses can be effective in reducing and preventing pain. Latex often conforms moderately to the body. Firmness tends to be medium to firm (but soft varieties are available), and excessive firmness is a top owner complaint.

Support Good to Fair
Conformability Good to Fair
Firmness Mostly Medium to Firm

Hybrid (Memory Foam / Spring)

Hybrid mattresses often provide both support and conforming ability. Sagging, however, is a problem for some brands. A variety of firmnesses are available.

Support Good to Fair
Conformability Good
Firmness Soft to Firm


While waterbeds are often conforming, their support is questionable. At least 15% of owners claim that their waterbed causes back pain because of a lack of support. Firmness can be adjusted somewhat by adding or removing water.

Support Fair
Conformability Good to Excellent
Firmness Somewhat Variable


Innerspring mattresses often provide good initial comfort, support and pain relief, but they tend to have the most problems with sagging. Models with a pillow top or a memory foam layer often provide at least fair conformability, while models with a minimal comfort layer often provide poor conformability. A variety of firmnesses are available.

Support Good to Fair
Conformability Good to Poor
Firmness Soft to Firm


Futon mattresses offer mostly fair support and conformability. Futons tend to be more firm than soft.

Support Fair
Conformability Good to Fair
Firmness Mostly Medium to Firm

About Our Mattress and Back Pain Research

Our research findings are based on over 21,000 actual mattress owner experiences collected from diverse, credible sources.

The findings report what is true for people as a group; some individuals may have different or even opposite experiences than what our findings describe.

Keep in Mind

– Owner experience data suggests that adjustable beds, especially those with memory foam, latex or air mattresses, can help at least somewhat in relieving back pain and other discomfort. See our Adjustable Bed Reviews & Ratings for details.

– Innerspring mattresses usually have good initial comfort and pain relief, but they tend to have the most reported issues regarding sagging, loss of support and, therefore, back pain potential.

– Considering one's sleeping position(s) is important when choosing a mattress. Having a firmness level that does not suit one's sleeping position(s) can result in discomfort and pain, including back pain.

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