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Your Mattress Could Be Causing Back Pain and Other Ailments

Updated November 19, 2019

black female sitting up from back pain

You’ve probably heard that your mattress needs to be replaced every eight to 10 years to get the best possible sleep. As it turns out, that isn’t just a mattress company marketing ploy to sell more mattresses. Sleeping on an old, worn out, lumpy, or just plain uncomfortable mattress will not only keep you from getting the best possible night’s sleep – it could be making you sick.

The fact that a bad mattress has a detrimental effect on your sleep is probably no surprise. In fact, in a National Sleep Foundation poll,about 9 in 10 linked the quality of their sleep to their mattresses. Although back pain is one of the most common ailments linked to poor-quality mattresses, old mattresses can also contribute to symptoms of asthma and allergies, heart disease, memory problems, and stress, among other concerns.

Mattress Basics

Although the National Sleep Foundation recommends replacing your mattress every eight years, that guideline doesn’t necessarily apply to all mattresses. The lifespan of your mattress depends in large part on the mattress makeup. For example, some memory-foam mattresses can last 10 to 15 years, while some high-quality latex mattresses can last 20 years or longer. On average, though, a traditional innerspring mattress lasts for about 10 years, depending on how well you maintain your mattress, your body size, and even how much you actually sleep on it.

In fact, how often – and how well – you clean your mattress plays a major role in how long it will last, and how likely it is to make you sick. Generally speaking, you should clean your mattress according to the manufacturer’s instructions, including vacuuming every six months, which many people don’t do. In fact, multiple studies have revealed that the average mattress contains all manner of allergens and other substances that can make you sick. For example:

  • The American Lung Association notes that 4 out of 5 homes have dust mites. Dust mite feces, often found in mattresses, can contribute to allergies and respiratory irritation.
  • Your mattress likely contains gallons of sweat, which may contain harmful bacteria like staph and strep.
  • It’s very likely that your pillow contains fungus and mold. In one study, 10 bed pillows that were currently being used by subjects contained at least 47 different types of fungus.

If the idea of all of these creepy-crawlies lurking in your mattress isn’t enough to make you start looking for a new one, consider this: An Oklahoma State University study discovered that people who replace their mattresses every five years have less back pain than people who keep their mattresses for longer. In short, regularly cleaning your bed and replacing your mattress more often are key to a good night’s sleep, and your overall health.

How Does a Mattress Cause Back Pain?

While many people can sleep on the same mattress for years without getting sick, most people will find that when they sleep on an old mattress, or on the wrong type of mattress, they will experience back pain.

Ideally, a mattress should support your spine’s natural alignment and cushion your pressure points. Every part of your body should be adequately supported so that there is no excess pressure on any one joint, and you aren’t lying in an awkward, misaligned position in an attempt to get and stay comfortable.

Unfortunately, what feels like a perfect mattress for one person could be miserably uncomfortable for someone else. Your preferred sleep position, body size, and even whether you sleep with a partner or pet can influence your mattress’s comfort. And over time, a mattress that once felt like sleeping on a cloud can eventually feel like sleeping on a park bench. And if your muscles are unable to relax, or your spine is out of alignment, you are going to wake up in pain.

How to Determine If Your Mattress Is Causing You Pain

So, how do you know for sure that it’s your mattress causing your back pain and not something else, like an old office chair or your workout routine? If you know that your mattress is getting up there in years, it’s probably not helping, even if it’s not the root cause of your pain. But if there isn’t any other obvious cause for your discomfort, ask yourself some questions to determine whether your mattress is the culprit:

  • How old is your mattress? If it’s more than seven or eight years old, a replacement is likely necessary.
  • How long does it take to get comfortable? If you’ve noticed it takes you longer to get comfortable each night than it did when the mattress was new, and you have to shift into several different positions to stay comfortable, it’s probably contributing to your pain.
  • When does your pain occur? One telltale sign that your mattress is contributing to your back pain is that it typically goes away or lessens with stretching, or within 30 minutes of waking up.
  • Do other mattresses cause pain? One common test for mattress-related back pain is the vacation test. Since hotel mattresses are typically fairly new, gauge how you feel after sleeping away from home for a few nights. If you wake up refreshed and without pain, and the pain returns when you sleep in your own bed again, it’s likely that your mattress is the culprit.

Another way to confirm that your mattress is causing pain is to visit a chiropractor. By analyzing your spine and posture and evaluating your pain, a chiropractor can determine whether there are problems with your alignment and help you correct them to reduce your pain and get better rest. If you determine that your pain is related to the mattress, then it’s time to replace it.

Although back pain is the most obvious sign that your mattress needs replacing, there are some other common ailments that can be linked to a poor mattress as well.

Other Ways Your Mattress Affects Your Health

    • Stress.  Sleeping on an old mattress can significantly increase your stress levels. In one study, researchers had subjects rate their stress levels after sleeping on a new mattress for one month versus their stress levels when sleeping on an old mattress. The subjects’ stress measurably dropped after sleeping on a new mattress, a result likely attributed to getting better sleep and no longer living with back pain.
    • Snoring.  Snoring isn’t only annoying to your sleeping partner – it can also be bad for your health. When your mattress doesn’t provide proper support, it can cause tension in your airways that leads to snoring or may even cause your airways to constrict or collapse, disrupting your breathing. Loud snoring is often a sign of sleep apnea, but even if you don’t have apnea, snoring can disrupt your sleep quality and contribute to other ailments.
    • Memory impairment. During sleep, your brain processes information and forms memories. If your uncomfortable mattress is disrupting your sleep and keeping you from reaching the crucial REM stage, you could suffer from memory loss or impairment.
    • Heart disease. According to a study in the European Heart Journal, not getting enough sleep increases your risk of developing heart disease by 48%.
    • Weak immune system. Research shows that not getting enough sleep can leave you more susceptible to colds and the flu, and makes it more difficult for your body to fight off infections when they do take hold. 

Clearly, not getting enough sleep due to an old or poor-quality mattress is detrimental to your well-being. If you’re not sleeping well, consider going mattress shopping.

What to Do if You Can’t Replace Your Mattress Right Away

vacuuming mattress

A quality mattress can cost close to $1,000 or more, with some high-end models surpassing the five-figure mark. If a new bed isn’t in the budget right now but you still want to improve your sleep, there are some short-term fixes to make your bed livable in the meantime.

  • Clean your mattress. If you have a double-sided mattress, flip it over, or rotate it to ensure even wear. Vacuum the mattress to remove dust and debris, and clean it according to the manufacturer’s instructions.
  • Add a mattress topper. A mattress topper can add up to several inches of padding to your existing mattress, making it more comfortable and supportive.
  • Change pillows. Ideally, you should purchase new pillows at least every few years (more often for less expensive, poly-filled pillows). Not only are new pillows more sanitary, but they can also be more supportive and comfortable.
  • Get an air purifier. Use an air purifier in your bedroom to help remove dust and other allergens from the air before they end up on your mattress.

While you might think that the recommendation to purchase a new mattress every decade is just a clever way to get you to shell out some cash, it’s actually important for your health. When it comes to your mattress, older is definitely not better, so prioritize your well-being with a comfortable, supportive sleep surface.