Is your mattress causing you back pain? 3 things to check for

Man sat on the side of his bed holding his neck in pain
(Image credit: Getty)

Is your mattress causing you back pain – and if so, how can you tell? There's seldom anything more uncomfortable than constantly contorting yourself in an attempt to find relief from a sore back or achy joints. What's worse, consecutive nights of low-quality sleep due to pain can leave you feeling unfocused and sluggish throughout the day.

Figuring out whether your mattress is the reason you wake up with back pain will require you to pay close attention to your body and overall sleep habits. According to the medical professionals we consulted on the matter, there are three tell-tale signs that your current mattress is creating (or perpetuating) your back issues – some more obvious than others. 

Once you've determined that your existing bed is creating or perpetuating your back problems, you can follow the expert advice below to find the best mattress for back pain (our best mattress and best hybrid mattress also features some soothing options), along with other ways to alleviate back pain so you wake up refreshed every morning. Should you need to buy a new mattress, there are plenty of ongoing mattress sales that'll help you save money.

Can a mattress cause back pain?

Sleeping on the wrong mattress can exacerbate an existing back injury or even introduce new aches and pains. Thus, it's important to know how to choose the right mattress for your preferences and body type.

"The best type of mattress depends on the person’s size, shape, and sleeping preference," says Dr. Kevin Lees, a former chiropractor in-clinic with over 20 years of experience who currently serves as Manager of Auditing and Quality for The Joint Chiropractic.

"Mattresses need to be supportive when lying down [so] there should not be any space from the person’s body to the mattress. It should also hold the person in a natural position, avoiding any twisting or bending," explains Dr. Lees.

To best achieve that, consider a memory foam mattress that'll contour to the shape of your body, relieving any pressure in your spine and joints. Memory foam will also adapt to any movements you make whilst sleeping so no matter how you lay, you'll still be 'hugged' by the mattress. 

However, memory foam is notorious for retaining heat, although there are full-foam beds that use specialized foams infused with gel, charcoal, or other cooling properties. A hybrid mattress blends the softness of foam with the support of innersprings – perfect for quelling back pain. Hybrids also tend to sleep cooler since the springs generate better airflow than cooling foam alone, which makes them better suited for chronically hot sleepers.

3 reasons a mattress could be causing back pain

There are several reasons a mattress can cause back pain; some may be more obvious than others. Below are three ways a mattress could be causing back pain, according to medical experts:

1. It's the wrong firmness level

Is it difficult for you to get comfortable in bed at night? You may be sleeping on the wrong type of mattress. Even the most expensive luxury mattress can create unpleasant aches and pains if it's the wrong match for your preferences and body type.

Per Dr. Lees, there should not be any gaps between your body and the mattress, and you should be able to lie in a natural position without any torque in your back. If your mattress is in otherwise good condition, adding a mattress topper will instantly make it softer or firmer at a fraction of the cost of a brand-new bed.

2. It no longer provides the support you need

On average, the lifespan of a mattress is between seven and 10 years – and can even last longer depending on how well you care for and clean your mattress. A mattress that's well beyond its glory days can wreak havoc on your back and joints due to sagging and a gradual loss of firmness that comes with nightly use.

Obvious signs of wear and tear are clear indicators that it's time to buy a new mattress. These include dips and indents, yellowing fabric, and sagging along the perimeter. Investing in one of the best mattress protectors can prolong the lifespan of your bed by safeguarding it from spills, bed bugs, and allergens. 

Moreover, there's the possibility that your sleep needs have changed – for instance, you've developed a health issue or now share a bed with a restless partner. The integrity of the mattress may still be sound, but if it can't somehow adapt to your new sleep habits or the level of support you require, you'll need to make a change, whether that's adding a mattress topper or buying a new bed altogether. 

3. It's actually DOMS that's to blame

If you regularly work out or have a physically demanding job, this sign may be trickier to pick up – but if you wake up each morning feeling like you just completed a strenuous activity, your mattress could be to blame.

"[A] tell-tale sign [that your mattress is causing back pain] is that you wake up with neck or back discomfort, or that your low back or neck pain is worse in the immediate hours after you wake up," says Dr. Lev Kalika, Clinical Director at NYDN Rehab in New York City. 

The key thing to note here is consistency. If you're frequently waking up in pain, regardless of your level of physical activity, take stock of your mattress. However, also consider any workouts or activities you engaged in recently as those could be the reasons for your back woes.

"Heavy lifting exercises have a delayed effect on soreness due to DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness). With that, many people may wake up with pain due to DOMS thinking the mattress is the culprit," explains Dr. Kalika. 

When in doubt, reach out to a medical professional for a proper diagnosis of your back pain. "Sleepers with back pain should consult a doctor or physical therapist for recommendations on what type of back [pain] category they belong to, then choose their mattress accordingly," says Dr. Kalika.

Tips to alleviate back pain while sleeping

Choosing the right mattress for your needs and body type will go a long way in reducing or eliminating back pain. However, there are other measures you can take to ensure restful nights and pain-free mornings.

Dr. Grant Radermacher, owner of Ascent Chiropractic in Brookfield, WI, offers these helpful tips:

Avoid stomach sleeping

"Sleeping on your stomach with your head turned to one side puts extra stress on your neck, back, and pelvis," says Dr. Radermacher. Instead, he recommends sleeping on your back for even distribution of your body weight, proper alignment of your spine and pelvis, and minimization of pressure points.

Place a pillow beneath your legs

In addition to resting your head on the best pillow, placing a pillow or foam wedge under your knees and lower buttocks will keep your spine and pelvis neutral whilst allowing the muscles in your back to relax. "Try to elevate your knees and upper legs two or three inches above your sleeping surface," says Dr. Radermacher.

Opt for memory foam

A memory foam mattress is ideal for sleepers with back pain, according to Dr. Radermacher. "[Memory foam] can automatically adjust to your body’s shape, contouring itself around your shoulders, back, and hips and allowing for a more pain-free sleeping experience." A hybrid mattress combines innersprings and foam for a blend of stability and softness. (If you sleep warm, note that hybrids sleep cooler than foam-only mattresses.) 

The medical professionals we've consulted for this story are well-regarded in their respective fields. However, they're providing general advice. Consult with your primary care doctor or a specialist if you're seeking a specific diagnosis or treatment for your back pain, regardless of whether your mattress is the potential cause.

If you need more support but you don't have the budget to purchase a new mattress right now, there are ways to make a mattress firmer to keep everything aligned. Of course, this is only an option if your current mattress is in good shape. 

Otherwise, browse the best cheap mattresses for beds that don't sacrifice quality for affordability, or check out today's best mattress deals below:

Alison Barretta

Alison is a freelance writer and editor from Philadelphia, USA. She is an expert mattress tester and sleep product reviewer, and has been sharing trusted buying advice and retail news for over a decade. When she isn't reviewing mattresses or hunting for deals, Alison can be found teaching/training in martial arts, fawning over skincare, and indulging in her quarantine-borne hobby: cooking.