March 22, 2019
How to Choose the Best Mattress

How to Choose the Best Mattress

by Berkeley Wellness  

Readers occasionally ask us about mattresses and pillows—for instance, "with all the advertising hype about bedding, what really matters?" There has been an arms race among mattress makers to market the “world’s best” bed—"recommended by the most doctors," "guaranteed" to produce the best sleep, featuring luxurious materials, and sometimes costing more than $5,000. But the idea that there’s a best bed (or pil­low) exists only in ad copy.

There is no scientific consensus on what makes a good mattress. Around the world, people sleep comfortably on straw mats, in hammocks, on futons, and on mattresses of every description—from super-thin to super-thick, with or without a box spring. It largely depends on what you’re accustomed to. Your mattress is a health issue only if it interferes with your sleep or leaves you with a backache or shoulder pain. This is one area where what feels goodis good.

What about the common wisdom that a hard mattress is preferable, especially for people with back pain? There isn't much well-designed research on this, and the results have been conflicting.

In one of the better studies, done in Denmark and published inSpine, people with low back pain slept on a hard mattress, body-conforming foam mattress, or waterbed for a month. Those sleeping on the hard mattress did slightly worse in terms of back symptoms and sleep quality. Hard beds can increase pressure on hips, shoulders, and other areas, resulting in more turning and thus pos­sibly more pain, the researchers suggested. Still, for each type of mattress, some people got better, some got worse, and some stayed the same.

Are those fancy "pressure relief" mat­tresses better? Once again, the research is, well, soft. A small study inApplied Ergo­nomicsin 2012, for example, found that such a mattress did not result in better sleep than a conventional one.

Looking for the Goldilocks effect

  • If your mattress is more than 10 years old, it may be worn out and need to be replaced. However, mattresses do wear out at different rates.
  • If the mattress looks uneven or sags, or if you and your sleeping partner tend to find yourselves rolling toward the center, consider replacing your mattress.
  • When shopping for a mattress in stores, test the models by stretching out on them in your customary sleep position for five or ten minutes, or longer if possible.
  • Comparison shopping is difficult because mattress models may have different names and cover materials in different stores. Moreover, there’s no industry-wide standards about the meaning of "firm," "extra firm," and similar terms. Check the exchange policy: Some companies will let you exchange a new mattress within a month or two if you don't like it, though they may charge a fee. Consumer Reports offers useful tips for shopping for a mattress, including several videos, on its website.

See also: The Best Pillow for You