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My Mattress Was Killing My Back

by Michael J. Velsmid, DPT, MS

mattress causing back pain

I should know better, but after spending $1,500 on a new mattress eight years ago, I was reluctant to throw it in the trash.  After a seventeen year professional career helping and advising people about treatment for back pain, even I did not recognize the importance of a good mattress in the overall treatment plan.  Here is my story.

Eight years ago, it was time to replace my old inner spring mattress.  I had reached a place in my life where I could afford to buy a mattress that was a little better than the ones sold in the fly-by-night shops catering to college students.  So, I headed over to my favorite big name furniture store.

Mattress technology had apparently evolved into a science necessitating the salespeople to wear white lab coats.  Prices easily exceeded $3,000 for the top of the line Stearns and Foster mattress.  The latest thing at that time was foam.  Foam was all the rage.  So, I tried the memory foam mattresses.  To me, a stomach sleeper, it felt like my torso was sinking into the foam deeper than my appendages and I was getting bent over backwards, sort of like the position a sky diver assumes in a free fall.  The other thing I noticed is that as I sunk into the hole, I could not easily roll out of it.  I’m not a big guy either.  So an all-foam mattress was not for me.

I tried the $3,000 Stearns & Foster and instantly fell in love, only to realize it would never be.  The salesperson continued to educate me on the benefits of foam and directed me to mattresses in my price range, this time a hybrid innerspring and foam mattress.  It had a nice pillow-top and came in two levels of firmness.  It was comfortable, supportive, but nowhere near as firm as the Sterns & Foster.  Since my wife prefers a softer mattress, we opted for the less firm model and took delivery of our new, high tech, Back Care mattress and box spring.  I think it was only two weeks later that we had the furniture store haul it away and replace it with the more firm model.  The first Back Care mattress broke my back. The second one was better, but not perfect.  I lived with it.

After about five years on the new, $1,500, Back Care mattress, my back became obviously sore after every night of sleep.  Whenever I stayed in a hotel on one of the typical “hard as a board” hotel mattresses, I had the best night sleep.  In the next three years, my sleep had degraded to the point where I was waking up in pools of sweat.  My back and neck hurt.  So much so, that I had come to grips with dropping $3,000 on that Sterns & Foster, even if it meant putting off a vacation.

So, we went shopping.  In those eight years, apparently the Sterns & Foster prices had come down substantially.  I was on a mission to find my love and I found her in a big mattress chain store.  I walked in the door and went straight to the $1,200 Sterns & Foster I saw on their website to find exactly what I found eight years ago, instant comfort and support.  As expected, I was immediately met by a salesperson, who informed me that mattress technology had evolved greatly in the last eight years, no longer requiring the lab coat, but this time mandating a scientific test.  I was required to lay on a special mattress embedded with sensors designed by the University of Michigan and tied into a complicated computer algorithm.  Using my anthropometrics, weight distribution, and sleep position, the software chose my mattress.  It was the store brand, $2,500 top of the line model.  I tried it and determined it felt exactly like my eight year old mattress at home.  I asked to go back to the Sterns & Foster and was brought to a brand name mattress costing about $2,000.  After a while, I started to realize that the sale of a mattress in this store was pretty closely linked to the profit margin.  It seems the store brand had the highest margin and the Stern & Foster had the lowest.  To make a long story short, I walked out the door satisfied with a sales receipt itemizing one Sterns & Foster mattress, one $200 mattress cover, and a $120 pillow.  I got upsold on the accessories to compensate for the lower margin, but was still nowhere near the $3,000 I was prepared to spend.

The story doesn’t end there, though.  The most valuable thing I learned, that I had forgotten eight years ago, is that mattresses come with long warranties.  My old mattress had a 10-year warranty!  I still had the receipt!  I called the furniture store and they acknowledged the warranty and dispatched a team to evaluate the mattress.  I immediately called to cancel my recent purchase.  The team arrived at my home a week later and took measurements and photographs of my old mattress.  After another week, I had a credit on my account at the furniture store for $1,500 and went shopping.  To my dismay, they no longer carried Sterns & Foster, but there was a new buzz, this time also about foam, but foam with beads.  Apparently, foam technology had evolved to cool the body.  The beads carry the heat away from your body.  I said thanks, but no thanks.  I did not have a good experience with my hybrid foam mattress and I just wanted a good quality pocketed coil mattress, sans the pillow-top, just like a Sterns & Foster.  I wanted a mattress similar to the bricks that I slept on in hotel rooms.  So, I asked the salesperson in the white lab coat to direct me to the most firm mattress that they had, the model everyone thinks is too hard.  That mattress was the same brand as my old mattress, but in their “Black” line.  I really didn’t want to go home with the same brand as my old mattress, but when I tried it, it felt as good as the Sterns & Foster.  So, I walked out with a sales receipt for that mattress, a $60 mattress cover and a twin mattress for my son.  I also got a free set of sheets.  I spent $600 for all that.  Far less than the $3,000 I was prepared to spend and the $1,500 that it was at the mattress chain store.

The mattress was delivered 4 days later.  After sleeping on it for several weeks, this is my conclusion.  My back and neck pain are gone.  I no longer wake in sweat.  I now look forward to going to sleep.  The most unexpected result was that I immediately and still have long and vivid dreams.  This tells me that for almost eight years I had deprived myself of the deepest rapid eye movement (REM) sleep.  REM sleep is necessary to recharge the brain.  For eight years, my back and neck pain had caused my sleep to be interrupted just enough to prevent me from going into REM sleep.  Not only was I in pain, but I was tired.  You might remember that my wife prefers a softer mattress and wonder how she liked the new brick.  Well, she didn’t, but is such an angel that she put up with it, because I was sleeping well.  I didn’t want her to go eight years not getting the best, most restful sleep.  We found a compromise.  Remember the new buzz in foam?  Beads?  Well, Costco sells a 2-inch mattress top made just from that cooling memory foam with beads.  We put it on and everyone is happy with our new “sleep system.”

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Dr. Velsmid is a Physical Therapist at Boston Sports Medicine