Mattress maxim grows softer

Firmness might not be best criterion for easing back pain, experts say

Health & Fitness

April 04, 2004|By Erika Hobbs | Erika Hobbs,Special to the Sun

Ron Ferguson loved his new mattress so much that after he bought it, he signed on to work at the store that sold it to him.

Injuries and backaches plagued Ferguson, 60, for two decades. He couldn't tilt his head, raise his arm or roll out of bed. But after he bought his new mattress last year, he says, it was much easier to get up, get around and get to sleep.

"It makes such a difference when you finally find the right one," he says of a good mattress.

Americans spend an estimated one-third of their lives sleeping, and sleep is crucial to good health. So finding the right mattress -- one you might sleep on for 10 years or longer -- is key.

"Mattresses are the most important piece of furniture you'll ever buy," says Will Leuchtenberger, manager of Bedding Barn in Cockeysville. "Buy wisely."

Wise buying these days means that consumers don't have to sacrifice comfort for support. A November study published in the British medical journal The Lancet found that you can sleep on a softer bed and still have a pain-free back.

In other words, says Ferguson, manager at JoAnne's Bed and Back in Owings Mills, firmness is out and softness is in.

Advice for backs

The Lancet study, the first of its kind, showed that medium-firm mattress were just as effective at relieving general back pain as firm ones, casting doubt on conventional wisdom that the harder the mattress, the better it is for the back.

That conventional wisdom, says Jim Wolf, a neurologist at the Greater Baltimore Medical Center in Baltimore, "was not necessarily an effective piece of advice."

Little medical research exists on how mattresses affect back health, notes Wolf, who searched for studies last fall when he was in the process of buying a new mattress. He and his wife decided on a softer, latex model.

Because of advances in technology, most mattresses provide adequate back support despite their level of firmness. Inner support mechanisms prevent sagging, which can cause backaches. Still, shopping for a new mattress can cause a different kind of pain.

Mattress shoppers are bombarded with seemingly endless choices of retailers, brands and options. Models and firmness ratings can vary considerably, making it difficult to comparison shop. And you can spend anywhere from $500 to thousands.

Last year, the wholesale mattress market topped $5 billion and is expected to grow by about 5 percent in 2004, according to the International Sleep Products Association, a mattress manufacturers' trade group.

Shopping for a mattress can be frustrating and confusing because there are few industry standards. In Europe, firmness is measured on a standard scale, with "1" being the firmest and "10" being the softest. In the United States, the market is clotted with a mix of terms that vary by company: Some offer firm, medium-firm and soft mattresses. Some use "plush" to describe softness. Others use their own number system to denote firmness levels.

Mattresses also come in a variety of materials. Some are latex, some use a type of foam developed by NASA; most have a coil-like support system. In general, more coils mean more support, but even that can be misleading. Smaller mattresses require fewer coils, and some models are made with a single, tightly wound coil.

To make matters worse, some manufacturers sell the same mattress to different retail chains, but often license them under different names. This makes comparison shopping even more difficult.

How to shop

So what's a consumer to do? "There is no one formula," says Scott Boden, an orthopedic surgeon in Atlanta and spokesman for the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons.

He and other industry insiders recommend trying many types of mattresses. Ferguson, from Joanne's Bed and Back, suggests spending at least 10 minutes on each one, curled in a position that you would sleep in. Bring your pillow from home when you shop.

Most stores don't let consumers return beds simply because they chose the wrong firmness, so it pays to spend time testing mattresses for comfort.

Look for models that "cradle and cushion" the back, Ferguson says. Body pressure should be distributed evenly across the mattress, and the lower back -- the lumbar region -- should be supported without bridging or sinking.

"If you feel like you aren't getting support in the lumbar region, don't buy it," says Bruce Barman, senior vice president of research and development at Sealy.

At Kingsdown retailers, such as JoAnne's Bed and Back, customers can lie on a "diagnostic" bed attached to a computer that will print out recommendations for suitable bedding.

Finally, buy the best mattress you can afford. Queen-size mattresses -- the average size sold -- can cost from $500 to several thousands of dollars, but you don't have to spend a fortune.

The International Sleep Products Association estimates that about 36 percent of mattresses sold last year cost less than $500, while 44 percent cost between $500 and $1,000.

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