Back Pain & Other Considerations

I’ve used this site before and found the information incredibly helpful. A few months back my wife and I purchased the Aspen from Furniture Row and have been happy with it. Now my sister is asking for help in choosing a mattress for her and her fiancé. I’ve done research on this site but thought it might be helpful for a customized response.

My sister’s fiance is 6’4 and 200 pounds. He has back problems (bulging disc) that continue to aggravate him. He claims to love a super firm mattress…firmer the better. He tends to sleep in all positions; back, side, and stomach.

My sister is 5’7 and 140 pounds. She does not have back problems and prefers a softer mattress. They are just starting to look at mattresses but already seeing some problems because they do not like the same thing. Any advice for them? I recommended they go to some of the smaller shops you’ve recommended near Salt Lake City and talk to the people there. I’ve also told them to focus on quality of material so that the mattress does not break down and lead to more back pain. I’ve sent them links for some general mattress selection ideas from this site.

They are both willing to compromise a bit but I’m not sure if there is anything else to tell them. It seems that firmness adjustable mattresses are just glorified air mattresses, but I have not researched it much.

Thanks in advance. This site is amazing.

Hi MD,

When someone has pre-existing back issues then the “rules” of mattress selection are still the same (focusing on PPP or Pressure relief, Posture and alignment, and Personal preferences) but alignment becomes even more important than it would be with someone that has no back issues and a little wider range of tolerance that would work for them. In most cases … even the firmest mattresses have some soft foam in them to relieve pressure but the comfort layers will tend to be thinner so that the feel of the firmer support layers will “come through” more.

There was a belief many years ago that firmer is better for back issues and some people still hold on to this belief but this is now known to not be accurate (firmness doesn’t always provide the necessary alignment) and a mattress that is too firm can also result in back issues because it may not provide the neutral alignment and support that is needed (and is even more important with back issues). Firmer deep support layers are important in these cases (to prevent the heavier areas of the body from sinking in too far) but secondary support which can “fill in” the gaps in body profile in different positions and help maintain the natural curvature of the more recessed areas or inward curves of the spine is also important and for this you need some softer foam on the top of the mattress.

I also believe that free movement on a mattress is also a good idea because a mattress that tends to “hold you” in position (such as many memory foam mattresses) where it is more difficult to change position (which is a vital part of healthy sleeping) can also lead to “jerky” position changes and risk aggravating back issues.

Post #11 here provides some tips about how to test for alignment and for him … testing specifically for alignment (rather than just going by subjective perceptions of firmness) may be a very good idea. If he goes by these suggestions he may need enough soft foam on the top of the mattress (and still have firm support) that will provide his lighter wife with the pressure relief she needs.

In these cases when there is the added complication of two different comfort preferences, body types, and sleeping positions there are really 3 ways to deal with this.

The first and worst is compromise where both of the people won’t really have what they want.

The second is through different types of layering. Heavier people will sink in deeper into a mattress than lighter people so if the top few inches are softer and then the layers underneath this are firmer, then the heavier person will feel more of the firmness of the lower layers (they will “go through” the upper layers more) while the lighter person will feel more of the softness of the upper layers. There are many variations of layering softness and thickness that can be used to provide both with what they need and prefer. This is the reason that some mattresses feel firm to some but soft to another.

The third method would be a side to side split layering where each side of the mattress can be layered differently to accommodate each person. This is more commonly available in a King Size but some manufacturers make this available is queen as well. I know that R&S can provide this in their Brooklyn Bedding mattresses in King Size and some of the others in the Salt Lake City list may as well.

Sometimes it can be important to let go of preconceptions like “firmer is better” not because they are completely wrong but because they may only deal with part of the story.

I certainly agree with this opinion. There is more of my thoughts about airbeds in this article and they are not nearly as “automatically” adaptable to different sleeping positions as other types of support systems or layers and they tend to have worse value than many other alternatives as well.

Hope this helps provide some general guidelines and ideas about what to look for and what may work for both of them.



Awesome reply - helped a ton. I passed it off to my sister and her fiancé and they used this information as they looked at mattresses. At furniture row they found 2 mattresses that they liked quite a bit. They both have good customer reviews but they were curious if you had any additional advice or words of caution. One is quite a bit more expensive than the other.

The first was the Snowmass and the second was the Durango. Also, in my first post I mentioned we had the Aspen but my wife and I actually have the Snowmass. We like it and that’s what I’m recommending to my sister, but the price worries them a bit.

Hi MD,

The Snowmass uses much higher quality (and more costly) materials in it in both the comfort and support layers and latex is a far superior, higher performing (more adaptable and conforming) and more durable foam than 1.8 lb polyfoam (which of course why it has a higher price). I also think the Snowmass is very good value and would certainly be my choice between the two if their budget allowed it (based on more objective considerations and on their need for the best possible comfort and support that won’t soften and degrade as much over time). Of course this doesn’t take into account any differences in terms of how well each one meets their needs and preferences or on any other intangible factors that may be important to them but it seems that they were similar in this regard and between these two … if it was possible I would personally lean in the direction of better quality, performance, and durability.