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7 Ways a Memory Foam Mattress Can Hurt Your Back

Dr. Dimitar Marinov Profile Picture Bedroom Style Reviews

The first time I ever slept on a memory foam mattress I woke up with back pain.

Well, to be honest, I never actually got to sleep because what started out as a rather soft and seemingly comfy mattress quickly became some sort of torture device that caused an excruciating ache in my lower back that stopped me from getting any sleep at all.

So after some extensive research, I discovered that there are several reasons why sleeping on a memory foam mattress may result in back pain:

A memory foam mattress can hurt your back if the mattress is too soft, too firm, too thin, lacks support, is sagging, is placed on the wrong frame, hasn’t had enough time to adjust to your physical characteristics; or simply isn’t a good fit for your body weight, body type, or dominant sleeping position.

One study found that when 100 medical residents switched from a ‘regular cotton mattress’ and slept on a thin 10cm (3.9″) foam mattress for one night, 63% of participants developed lower back pain that resolved for 61 of the participants when switching back to the original cotton mattress; with the back pain returning upon switching back to the foam mattress once again [1].

The good news is that there are several steps that you can take to reduce the chance of you buying a memory foam mattress that’s going to be uncomfortable – such as buying a high quality memory foam mattress from Tempur-Pedic that’s less likely to sag and hurt your back.

And there’s also a few things that you can do to stop your memory foam mattress from hurting your back if you’ve already bought it and it’s causing you problems.

This article provides multiple solutions for both scenarios.

Alternatively: if you’re looking for a new mattress and want to avoid memory foam, then check out my list of the best mattresses without memory foam here or if you’re specifically looking for a mattress to help with your back pain, then have a look at my list of the best mattresses and adjustable beds for back pain here.

7 Ways a Memory Foam Mattress Can Hurt Your Back.

Memory Foam Mattresses: 7 Causes Of Back Pain

Here are 7 reasons why a memory foam mattress could cause you back pain:

  • The mattress is too firm or soft.
  • The mattress doesn’t provide enough support.
  • The mattress is being used with the wrong type of base.
  • The mattress doesn’t keep you in good posture (common in front sleepers).
  • The mattress is causing your neck to be misaligned on the pillow.
  • The mattress has not yet adjusted to your body weight and shape.
  • The mattress is not compatible with your sleeping style.

Each point is explained in more detail below.

But first, it’s important to understand how the elastic and pliable properties of memory foam gives it both potential benefits and drawbacks.

Memory foam was originally developed under contract by NASA in 1966 for use in their aircraft and was later adapted for mattresses [2] – with Tempur-Pedic being the pioneer of the memory foam mattress and remains one of the most popular and respected brands in the mattress market today.

Memory foam is made from a mixture of polyurethane foam and other chemicals that combine to make a type of foam that changes shape in response to your body heat and weight to create a sleep surface that’s contoured very precisely to your body shape.

This moulding effect makes memory foam mattresses very good at removing discomfort on the more prominent regions of your body like your hips and shoulders because unlike a spring mattress that tends to create pressure points on your body, the foam actively works to remove them.

Consequently, this leads to many memory foam mattress companies to make the biased, sweeping statement that ‘memory foam mattresses are good for your back’, or that ‘a memory foam mattress can cure back pain’.

And whilst it’s certainly possible that a memory foam mattress may help to manage back pain in some users, it’s equally possible that a memory foam mattress could actually CAUSE back pain too.

This is because mattress comfort is the result of several variables coming together – such as how your body weight, body shape, and dominant sleeping position interact with the qualities and properties of the mattress.

And if one or more aspects of the mattress aren’t a good fit for your physical characteristics or preferred sleeping style – back pain could be the end result.

Below are the 7 main reasons that explain why a memory foam mattress could cause you back pain and what you can do to avoid or fix the issue.

1: The Mattress is Too Firm or Soft

Mattress ‘firmness’ describes how ‘hard’ or ‘soft’ a mattress feels when you lie down on it.

Don’t make the mistake of assuming that all memory foam mattresses are soft.

Yes, memory foam typically sinks in further than the upholstered layer of a traditional spring mattress and even some latex mattresses, but memory foam can still be ‘firm’.

This is because the manufacturer can increase or decrease the ILD values of the foam to make it firmer or softer.

If your memory foam mattress is too firm then you might not sink far enough into the materials – which may result in discomfort in your neck, hips, shoulders, lower back, and other areas due to the compression forces building up in your joints.

If your memory foam mattress is too soft, you may sink too far into the mattress and your spine could drop out of alignment – which can lead to back pain.

Solution #1: Choose the Right Firmness (Pre-Purchase)

If you’ve yet to buy your memory foam mattress then it’s crucial that you choose a firmness that’s going to increase the chance of you being comfortable in it.

However, it’s important to note that firmness selection isn’t an exact science because the final comfort levels depend on multiple factors.

But here’s a rough guide explaining which memory foam mattress firmnesses typically work best with certain body weights, body types, and sleeping positions – although personal preferences can certainly override these guidelines:

  • Soft – softer memory foam mattresses are typically better for side sleepers because they provide deeper cushioning to remove the pressure on your hips and shoulders. Skinny sleepers can also benefit from the combination of the extra pressure relief provided by the memory foam and the reduced surface tension, whilst lighter weighted sleepers under 150 lbs can sink further into the materials for greater pressure dissipation on their joints and spine. Softer memory foam mattresses are best avoided by heavier sleepers over 230 lbs and all but the lightest front/stomach sleepers due to the propensity for greater sinkage that may trigger lower back pain.
  • Medium – medium or universal firmness memory foam mattresses are typically well suited to side, front, and back sleepers in the 130 – 230 lbs range. Combination/restless sleepers towards the lighter end of the spectrum may be able to change positions fairly smoothly in a medium memory foam mattress.
  • Firm – firmer memory foam mattresses are better for stomach sleepers, combination sleepers, and sleepers over 230 lbs because the greater surface tension can help to keep your hips better aligned to guard against back pain, support more weight, and allow for a more fluid change of positions when compared to a softer memory foam mattress.
FirmnessSleeping Style
SoftSide sleepers, sleepers <150 lbs, skinny body types.
MediumFront, back, side, combo sleepers 130 lbs – 230 lbs.
FirmFront and back sleepers, sleepers >230 lbs.

Solution #2: Make the Mattress Softer (Post-Purchase)

If you’ve already bought your memory foam mattress and it’s too firm, here’s a few things that you can try to soften it up:

  • Use a soft mattress topper – you can buy a separate mattress topper that’s softer than your current mattress and place it on top of your existing mattress to make it feel less firm. Memory foam, wool, down, and natural mattress toppers can make your mattress feel softer.
  • Break the mattress in – if your memory foam mattress is new, then it will likely soften up over time and through the application of pressure and heat. Walking, rolling, or lying on your new memory foam mattress for 10 – 30 minutes can help to soften the materials, make it feel less firm, and also help to make your memory foam mattress expand fully.
  • Warm the room – memory foam mattresses can freeze or become stiff in colder temperatures and feel like a rock. Increase the ambient room temperature to 20°C (68 °F) or more and see if it helps to make your memory foam mattress feel softer.
A mattress topper.
A Mattress Topper (Getty via Canva.com)

Solution #3: Make the Mattress Firmer (Post-Purchase)

If your memory foam mattress is too soft and giving you back ache or causing other discomforts, then here’s a few strategies that you can use to make it firmer:

  • Use a firm mattress topper – you can buy a firmer mattress topper to increase the firmness of your existing mattress. A Dunlop latex or compact wool topper is likely to do a better job than a memory foam topper due to the naturally firmer bias.
  • Use a firmer base – if you’re currently using a slatted frame or a base that’s sagging/damaged, you can firm your mattress up by placing it on a solid platform base. Putting the mattress on the floor will almost certainly increase the firmness, but there are several reasons why you should not put your memory foam mattress on the floor; one of which is the possible danger of voiding the warranty.
  • Use a sheet of plywood – if you don’t want to put your mattress on the floor and you don’t have a different frame, then putting a sheet of plywood under the mattress may increase the firmness and temporarily combat the effects of a sagging memory foam mattress.
  • Cool the room – just as warming the room can make your memory foam mattress feel softer, dropping the temperature down may help to firm the materials up. The ideal temperature for sleep is considered to be around 16-18°C (60-65°F), whilst 12°C (53°F) tends to be too cold for most [3] – so in between that range could strike a balance between comfort and firmness.
  • Rotate the mattress – if your mattress is starting to develop indentations, body impressions, dips, or valleys that are causing softness that’s leading to back pain, then rotating the mattress 180 degrees may help to temporarily fix the issue. However, unless your mattress is double-sided, you should NOT flip most memory foam mattresses because they usually have softer foam at the top and denser foam underneath. Turning it over would likely result in an uncomfortable mattress and void the warranty.

2: There’s Not Enough Support

If your memory foam mattress is giving you back pain then a lack of support is one of the major causes.

Mattress support is NOT the same as mattress firmness.

Firmness refers to the ‘hard’ or ‘soft’ feeling that you experience when you initially lie on the mattress.

Whilst support is the degree to which the mattress is able to support your spine, promote good posture, and keep your back and joints free from pain.

The firmness and feel of the mattress is typically influenced by the upper comfort layer of the mattress, whilst the support is more a product of the lower support core (see image below) – although the two can influence each other to some extent.

Poor mattress support is typically the result of sagging.

Sagging may occur because there’s too much weight on the mattress, the materials have degraded, manufacturer defects, poor design, or a combination of these factors.

Visual difference between firmness and support. (Custom Image: BedroomStyleReviews.com).
Visual difference between firmness and support. (Custom Image: BedroomStyleReviews.com)

Solution – Get the Right Amount of Support

Getting the right amount of support for your memory foam mattress to guard against back pain can be achieved in the following ways:

  • More support for heavier weights – if you weigh more than 230 lbs then you need to make sure that your all-foam, memory foam mattress is designed to hold this amount of weight (like Amerisleep’s memory foam rage). Otherwise, you might be better going for a hybrid design where the base is made from coils for more robust support and the upper comfort layer is made from memory foam for greater pressure relief.
  • Denser foam – if you’re going for an all-foam mattress, then you need to make sure that the base layer is made from high density foam, since lower density foam tends to degrade more quickly and lead to sagging. Polyfoam is typically used in the base layers rather than memory foam, so look for a minimum density of 1.7 PCF for polyfoam.
  • Replace a sagging mattress – if your memory foam mattress is visibly sagging or feels like it sinks down too much in the middle, then the chance of experiencing back pain increases. If your mattress is still under warranty and it’s sagging or indenting, then you might be able to get a replacement or have the mattress fixed if it’s down to a defect through the fault of the manufacturer. If your memory foam mattress is more than 5-7 years old (less if you bought a cheap memory foam mattress) then your best course of action is to buy a new mattress that won’t sag as quickly.

3: You’re Using the Wrong Base

If you’ve just bought a new memory foam mattress and plonked it on your existing base then a lack of compatibility might be causing subtle sagging that’s leading to your back pain.

You’ll typically find that memory foam mattresses don’t do as well on slatted bases unless the gaps between the slats are no more than 3-4 inches.

This is because spaces that are too wide may allow the foam to push through the gaps and undermine the support.

Solution – Use a Compatible Base

You need to check the warranty or the manufacturer’s guidelines for the mattress that you’re going to buy to find out which bases are compatible with your memory foam mattresses.

Be wary of 3rd party sellers that claim you can use any base.

If you buy directly from the manufacturer’s website, you can often bundle in a compatible base to avoid issues with sagging and voiding of the warranty.

A wooden slatted bed frame.
Use the Right Bed Frame for Your Mattress (Getty via Canva.com)

4: You’re Sleeping On Your Front

Sleeping on your front/stomach is considered by many medical experts to be the worst sleeping position when it comes to guarding against back pain and may actually cause back pain due to the strain it places on your back, spine, and neck [4].

This risk of back pain heightens when sleeping on your front in a memory foam mattress because the deeper compression afforded by the memory foam means that your hips are somewhat more likely to drop out of alignment when compared to the thinner and less compressive nature of an upholstered top layer found on a regular spring mattress.

Heavier weighted stomach sleepers over 230 lbs are the most at risk of back pain when sleeping in a memory foam mattress because the greater weight compounds the sinkage issue.

Solution #1: Switch Positions

If you’re a front sleeper and you own a memory foam mattress that’s giving you back pain then you might want to try sleeping on your side.

More specifically, you might find it beneficial to sleep on your side with a pillow between your knees and adopt the leg position shown in the video below:

Is Your Bed Killing Your Back? Causing your Back Pain or Back Ache (Bob & Brad)

Solution #2: Consider a Different Mattress

If you’re a stomach sleeper over 230 lbs and yet to buy your mattress then you might want to consider going for a firmer memory foam mattress that’s designed to hold heavier weights (such as Amerisleep’s AS1 or AS2 memory foam mattresses).

Alternatively, you might want to go for a firmer spring or hybrid mattress that has coils in the support core to guard against sinkage – check out some of the best mattresses without memory foam for some good options.

5: Excessive Sinkage

Are you using your old pillows with your new memory foam mattress and have suddenly developed upper back pain and/or neck ache?

Then the pain might be arising because whilst your pillow loft (height) remains the same, the memory foam is allowing you to sink further into the mattress which is throwing your neck out of alignment.

Solution – Reduce the Pillow Height

To compensate for the extra sinkage, using less pillows or a thinner pillow may help to realign your neck and reduce the pain.

6: Not Enough Time Has Passed

It can take up to 30 days or more for a new memory foam mattress to ‘break in’ and adjust to your body weight, body type, and preferred sleeping position.

This is why many sleep trials stipulate that you cannot return the mattress until this 30 night adjustment window has passed.

Solution: Adjust or Return

The solution is to wait for the 30 night trial period to pass to see if you get used to the mattress and your back pain eases – returning it for a refund if you’re still unhappy.

However, spending 30 nights in agony isn’t recommended.

So you might like to try some of the adjustment strategies that I’ve already listed in this guide to help you cope in the meantime if you have no choice but to sleep in the mattress.

You could try using a mattress topper, walking/rolling on the mattress to break it in, heating/cooling the room, trying a different base, or switching your sleeping position.

7: Incompatibility

If you’ve done everything that I’ve mentioned in this guide that’s possible in your situation and you still have back pain, then it could be that you’re not very well suited to memory foam mattresses – or it’s not the mattress that’s causing your back pain.

Solution: Look For an Alternative

If you don’t know what’s causing your back pain then you should go and see your doctor.

Otherwise, if the pain arises shortly after waking and fades as the day goes on, and/or your mattress is more than 8 years old then it could be the mattress that’s the problem.

If you want to buy a new memory foam mattress then I recommend going for a high quality brand like Tempur-Pedic – check out my Tempur-Pedic mattress reviews to help you find the right choice for you.

But if your current memory foam mattress is new and you hate it, then you should return it to the manufacturer/retailer in line with their sleep trial or return policy and look for an alternative.

If you don’t like memory foam then a traditional spring, all-latex, or hybrid mattress might be better for you.

Check out some of the best memory foam mattress alternatives here for some good quality options.

Related Questions

Here are some of the answers to the common questions related to memory foam mattresses and back pain.

What Causes Back Pain at Night?

Back pain at night can be caused by strains, poor posture, sciatica, a prolapsed disc, scoliosis, arthritis, cancer, and a range of other medical conditions [5] – always consult with your doctor in regards to any health changes to get the right type of treatment.

How Can You Tell That Your Mattress is Causing Back Pain?

There’s a good chance that your mattress is the cause of your back pain if you wake up with back ache that dissipates throughout the day only to return the next morning; you wake up in the night frequently, you toss and turn, and/or your mattress is more than 8 years old – but you should always consult with your doctor to be sure.

Is Memory Foam Good For Your Back?

For some individuals, memory foam mattresses can be good for their back because the foam is able to conform to their unique body shape to provide better pressure relief and support; whilst other individuals may find that memory foam causes back pain because the mattress doesn’t suit their body type.

Are Mattress Toppers Bad For Your Back?

Mattress toppers are not necessarily bad for your back, but they can cause discomfort if the topper is too soft or firm; getting a topper with the right level of firmness may help to alleviate back pain for some individuals but this not a guarantee.

Conclusion: Memory Foam Can Be Good and Bad

Whilst there’s a range of different ways that a memory foam mattress could hurt your back, not all memory foam mattresses are inherently bad for your back.

There are plenty of people who have reported that a memory foam mattress has actually helped to reduce their back pain.

Brands like Tempur-Pedic use high quality and high density foams to guard against the sagging and material degradation that’s common in cheaper memory foam mattresses – check out the best Tempur-Pedic mattresses here if you want to buy a new memory foam mattress.

And if you follow the points made in this article in regards to choosing the right level of firmness, getting sufficient support, and using the right type of base, then the chance of you being happy with a memory foam mattress could increase.

Click here to see the best mattresses and adjustable beds to help with your back pain now.

But if you’ve decided that a memory foam mattress isn’t for you, or you’re ready for a new mattress without memory foam, then click the button below to see some great selections.


Sources and References

[1] Europe PMC – The Foam Mattress-Back Syndrome. Accessed 4/10/20.

[2] Wikipedia – Memory Foam. Accessed 22/7/20.

[3] The Sleep Council – Perfect Sleep Environment. Accessed 22/7/20.

[4] Healthline – Is It Bad to Sleep on Your Stomach? Accessed 22/7/20.

[5] Healthline – Nighttime Back Pain. Accessed 22/7/20.

Medical Disclaimer

No part of this article or website is designed to offer medical advice and is for informational purposes only. Always consult with your doctor or a medical professional before buying a sleep product or making lifestyle changes relative to your specific medical condition.

2 thoughts on “7 Ways a Memory Foam Mattress Can Hurt Your Back”

  1. I’ve tried 4 different brands, and each hardness of foam mattress. I’ve also tried all the accessories, from toppers, to branded pillows, to body contouring devices meant to keep you in place and aligned.

    Guess what?

    It’s all BS. It all hurts my back, you can set up ANY foam mattress and the next morning I’ll be in total pain.

    If I sleep on a board, or a wood floor, or a piece of plywood, the plain ol’ earth, or the cheapest hardest mattress you can find, doesn’t hurt at all. Wake up feeling fine.

    In a nutshell I noticed what many others have, after visiting hotels with “cheap” mattresses and waking up feeling great, I finally caved and got a cheapo.

    Marketing is a cruel mistress, and a damaging one apparently, just stick to a simple bed, the foam ones make all join issues worse. I don’t care how many gel pads or quantum planks are in it, it’s junk.

    Heck even my Physical Therapist recently started telling all his clients to stop buying them… And he used to champion them.

    Reply
    • Hi Bob, yes my experience with memory foam mattresses has generally been negative too – they seem to either really suit people or not at all.

      I switched back to a spring mattress and I prefer it.

      Thanks for sharing your experiences.
      Dan

      Reply

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