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Memory Foam vs Spring Mattress

Updated October 20, 2019

Innerspring mattresses have been around for decades – but with the advent of the age of technology, newer materials have begun to show up – none of them perhaps is more intriguing than memory foam – a material that responds to body heat to shape itself.

Many of us are on the fence between these two choices – traditional vs. contemporary. The truth is that there is a vast difference between the structure and mechanism of the two, and choosing between them can be a tough call if you don’t have a lot of experience in bedding.

Still, picking the right side for yourself in the memory foam vs spring mattress debate could prove critical for a restful sleeping experience, one that rejuvenates your physical structure, and alleviates (and prevents) back-pain.

Conversely, make the wrong pick, and you could end up with a lot more than lost sleep – severe sciatica, short product lifespan, and a voided warranty are all on the table.

Memory Foam Mattress

The Pros and Cons

Pros

  • Shapes itself according to sleeper’s body.
  • Provides excellent support and pressure relief.
  • Soft, enveloping feel.
  • Isolates motion.

Cons

  • Expensive.
  • Tends to get hot.
  • Temperature sensitivity may be a liability in extremes.
  • Initial chemical odor.

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The Basics of Memory Foam

Memory foam is known for its ability to conform to the contours of the sleeper’s body based on body heat, which means it provides personalized pressure point relief regardless of sleep style – something that regular continuous / Bonnell coil spring mattresses simply can’t achieve. The conformity results in superior spinal alignment that both relieves and prevents sciatic pain.

However, on its own, it is insufficient to make up an entire mattress – rather, it is used as a comfort layer, with the base consisting of a more resilient support layer of high density polyurethane foam.

How long a memory foam mattress performs effectively depends on its density: high end memory foam mattresses normally have comfort layers comprising of more than 4 lb./cu.ft. dense memory foam, which enables them to remain useful for quite a long period of time.

Support

The support in these mattresses is dependent on both the comfort layer (made of memory foam) and the support layer (made of polyfoam). The conforming nature of memory foam means it will compress differentially based on the parts of your body which are sticking out the most (take note, side sleepers). This in turn will enable you to maintain proper spinal alignment during your sleep – which is the crux of a mattress’s support.

However, since memory foam molds itself according to body heat, and does not rebound any of the impact to you, it is regarded by some as ‘dead’ support – meaning that you won’t feel the same springy sensation as you get from regular foam or latex.

The support layer is what handles the entire weight of your body, but it is only effective if your body is able to sink through the top layer and come into appreciable contact with the support layer – in other words, too thick a layer of memory foam, and you may feel like you’re sleeping in a hammock – a sure recipe for back ache.

Comfort and Pressure Relief

Its ability to mold itself to the body’s contours enables memory foam to target the major pressure points in the body i.e. the spine, the neck and the shoulders. It is able to shape itself according to how these are jutting out, and therefore able to alleviate the pressure they would normally exert in the case of a non-responsive sleeping surface.

Note that it will feel more like you’re sleeping ‘in’ the mattress as opposed ‘on’ it, because of the deeper pressure relieving cradle formed by the sinking memory foam.

The quicksand like response of memory foam stems from its reaction to heat, which alters its physical structure and causes it to compress according to the pressure it feels. While this allows for an unprecedented degree of personalized comfort, it can also create problems in temperature extremes:

Too cold, and the surface will become hard and unresponsive; too warm, and you may wake up hot and sweaty in the middle of the night – the latter is especially true of first generation memory foam, with its closed cell structure that doesn’t allow for adequate air flow.

The problem has been rectified somewhat in modern memory foam products, through the application of open-cell technology and combination with cooling gel , that enable better thermal ventilation.

Motion Transfer

Memory foam’s viscoelastic nature allows it to respond to pressure very locally, which translates into excellent motion isolation, a very important consideration if you share your bed with a partner who tends to move a lot during the night.

Durability

As mentioned above, the durability of a memory foam mattress is directly related to its density – while 4 lb./cu.ft. is the minimum you should aim for if you don’t want to experience sag within the first year or so, we recommend going for at least 5 lb./cu.ft. if you want a product that will last truly long.

Note that even when memory foam does show its age, it only gets softer as compared to most other materials which tend to settle into hard recesses – beyond a certain point, it will get too soft and won’t offer sufficient support to your body.

Maintenance

To get the most out of your memory foam mattress, it is recommended that you rotate the head to the feet after three months to prevent the development of a lasting physical impression as the mattress gets older.

Since memory foam is temperature and humidity sensitive, you’ll want to use it in a room with a moderate, regulated temperature for it to behave optimally. At lower temperatures, it could become firmer and more prone to wear; if you received your new memory foam mattress folded at a sub-40 Fahrenheit temperature, do give it time to equalize with the environment – opening it by force may result in damage.

Innerspring Mattress

The Pros and Cons

Pros

  • Available for a wide range of budgets.
  • Certain varieties offer conforming support.
  • Springy, reactive feel.
  • Generally inexpensive compared to memory foam.

Cons

  • Mainstream varieties may lack sufficient support / pressure relief for back ache patients.
  • Only the most expensive mattresses offer a degree of motion isolation.

The Basics of Innerspring Mattresses

Innerspring mattresses are the most popular among consumers: they’re cheap, and have been extensively developed to cater to a wide range of consumer requirements over the years. They consist of metallic springs, either woven out of a single wire into an unbroken structure, or crafted individually and combined together using a lacing.

The firmness of an innerspring mattress is determined by the thickness of its coils (measured in gauges – the higher the gauge, the thinner the coil). Thinner coils are better able to shape themselves to your body profile, but are also less firm. The firmness can also be modified by the shape, number of turns and height of the coil. Innersprings can generally be divided into Bonnell coils, continuous coils, offset coils, and pocket coils.

Bonnell Coils

These are helical shaped springs with a thin middle part (that responds to soft pressure) that thickens towards the ends for overall support. Most cheap spring mattresses use this construction. Note that they are not even remotely close to memory foam in terms of comfort or support, and don’t last more than a few years, going by consumer reviews.

Continuous Coils

This spring system comprises of a single long wire twisted into hundreds of individual coils, linked together by a helical lacing. The lacing serves to isolate motion, and also improves the lifetime compared to Bonnell. Overall, continuous coils are more supportive than Bonnell coils, but can’t match the contoured support of memory foam.

Offset Coil

These are individual coils linked by helix shaped lacing – the individuality allows them to conform to your body so your musculo-skeletal structure can stay properly aligned while you sleep. They are quite stiff, and thus favored by some back ache patients who want some reactive force on their joints. Their construction makes them very durable too, but they do suffer in the motion transfer reduction department.

Pocketed

These are soft, separately wrapped springs designed to provide conformity and support on par with memory foam mattresses. The individualized wrapping of each coil also eliminates movement. These mattresses are pricier than standard spring configurations, but keep in mind that they won’t automatically be more durable, since the independent springs are less hardy than a single unit.

In general, a mattress (with high quality individual springs) that has a higher coil count will be able to better conform to your physique – but this is only part of the story. The spring types mentioned above are used exclusively in the support layer of the mattress, so you can’t directly compare them to memory foam.

For that, we’ll need to look at microcoils: present inside the comfort layer, they utilize thin and flexible metal wires, and are used in a high coil count configuration. In conjunction with a thin layer of fiber or foam, microcoils are able to conform to your body similar to memory foam. Obviously, mattresses that incorporate them aren’t as cheap as the ones which have more standard innerspring compositions, but are still more affordable than high end memory foam options.

Support

All innersprings are able to offer springy, somewhat hard support, with some being able to shape up to your bodily contours upon initial compression, and then providing the firm support upon further impression.

While regular mattresses using continuous coil and Bonnell coil structures yield minimal localized support, the more advanced (and expensive) offset coil and pocket coil models (especially those that have microcoils in the comfort layer) can provide a combination of springiness and conformity that works for back ache sufferers who aren’t fans of the quicksand like feel of memory foam.

Obviously, as mentioned above, the thickness and quality of the steel used, the number and height of the coils, and the comfort material used, will all play a role in determining the overall support and firmness of the product.

Comfort and Pressure Relief

Innersprings with continuous or Bonnell coil structures won’t offer anything in terms of pressure relief (unless they’re the more expensive ones with pillowtops) – but a decent mattress with a pocketed base and micro-coils on top will offer pressure relief on par with good memory foam options, sans the sinking sensation that some of us are not fans of.

This is because individualized springs offer superior point elasticity which allows them to form around your body – and then push back some of the pressure your body is exerting.

Heat Retention and Breathability

A mattress utilizing springs in its support core, and topped off by a polyfoam comfort layer (or microcoils) will not respond differently to different body temperatures, nor will it retain any body heat.
However, certain manufacturers do sell hybrid mattresses that use springs as the base and memory foam as the comfort layer, and these products will run hotter than typical innerspring offerings.

Durability

Spring mattress durability is primarily dictated by the quality of the material used in the coils, and the thickness thereof. Quite obviously, coils with a larger diameter and greater overall thickness, made from tempered steel, will last longer than cheap knockoffs.

In general, innersprings are perhaps the toughest part of a mattress, and provided they are of good quality, will last longer than all secondary comfort and support materials it contains, except perhaps latex.

Maintenance

If you’re using a double sided innerspring mattress, it is recommended that you flip and rotate it every three months or so, to reduce bodily impressions. For single sided mattresses, you need only rotate it after the same period. Other than that though, there isn’t anything significant you need to look out for.

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Firmness

A direct comparison between the firmness of memory foam mattresses and spring mattresses isn’t really possible, because the former is a soft material primarily designed for comfort / pressure relief with very little impact on the firmness of a mattress (unless it is appreciably deep, say 3”, and with a higher compressive modulus), whereas the latter is an actual support material that can impact the firmness of the final product.

In other words, you will have to compare between the support layer of the memory foam mattress, and the springs in the support core of the innerspring mattress, to gauge their difference in firmness – and that is an entirely subjective matter.

Memory Foam Vs Pocket Coil Mattress

Pocketed coil mattresses deserve a dedicated comparison with memory foam, because both tout themselves as being able to shape themselves according to the sleeper’s physical structure, which translates into optimum spinal alignment and pain relief.

In terms of comfort and support, pocket coil mattresses are pretty much comparable to memory foam, but they will respond to pressure in a far more springier manner than the latter, which tends to absorb pressure as opposed to reflecting it (hence the ‘sinking’ feeling). In other words, if you prefer a more bouncy feel to your bed, you’ll want to go with the pocket coil mattresses.

Memory foam mattresses – even the most expensive ones – suffer from some degree of heat retention and initial chemical odor. If you’re not a fan of this, pocket coil mattresses are a more affordable alternative you can resort to; the best of course, would be a natural latex mattress, but that is a little more pricey than an innerspring.

Memory Foam Vs Spring Mattress For Back Pain

As we’ve discussed above, traditional innersprings with a continuous coil or Bonnell coil structure will not offer any conforming support, which is necessary for alleviating the stress from your pressure points and maintaining proper spinal alignment during your sleep. This makes them unsuitable for sufferers of back pain.

The real comparison then, boils down to pocketed coil mattresses versus memory foam: and while both of them offer sufficient localized support and have the ability to adopt the shape of the sleeper’s body, they vary in their surface feel.

Memory foam is soft and sinking, whereas pocketed coil mattresses are springy and reactive – so ultimately, it is a matter of what ‘feels’ right under your aching back.

Recommendations Based on Sleep Types

Side Sleeper

Side sleepers tend to exert the most stress on pressure points i.e. hips and shoulder joints, and therefore require a mattress that molds itself to these extruding body parts to keep their spine perfectly aligned as they sleep. This can be achieved with memory foam mattresses, pocketed spring mattresses (even better with a comfort layer on top), and even memory foam / innerspring hybrids.

Stomach Sleeper

Stomach sleepers don’t tend to exert a lot of force on their pressure points, so unless they’re suffering from a specific condition that causes back pain, they can make do with a regular innerspring mattress that offers minimal conforming support.

Healthy females should take note though, regular innersprings may cause some inconvenience when you’re sleeping in this position because they are unwieldy under pressure, so an offset coil innerspring mattress (or even a pocketed coil one) may be more suitable.

Back Sleeper

Back sleepers’ spines don’t need much individualized support because they are already in their natural position (or pretty close), so again, if you sleep in this style, chances are you’ll be just fine with a decent continuous coil or Bonnell coil mattress.

Of course, if you’re dealing with back pain (or have dealt with it before), a more conforming option such as an offset coil mattress might be a more appropriate candidate.

Memory Foam Mattress Vs Innerspring Mattress Comparison

Memory Foam Innerspring
Molds itself to contours of body Some varieties are non-yielding, while others do mold themselves
Provides individualized pressure relief Only some varieties provide individualized pressure relief
Excellent motion isolation Only some varieties provide motion isolation
Temperature sensitive Temperature agnostic
Sinking surface feel Springy surface feel
Expensive Relatively cheap
Used in comfort layer Predominantly used in support core

The Verdict

You may be expecting us to declare a visible winner in the memory foam vs innerspring mattress debate, but if you’ve been paying attention to the comparisons above, it is impossible to name one.

Simply because the advantages of both kinds of mattresses are only relevant to consumers with specific requirements: memory foam mattresses are suited to chronic back pain sufferers looking for soft, conforming relief; spring mattresses are of many types – some are meant for budget buyers, while others provide personalized support similar to memory foam mattress but with a harder, springier feel.

And this is besides getting into details such as temperature sensitivity, motion transfer and maintenance. In other words, a lot of this will come down to personal preference and context – but hopefully, you’re now equipped with enough knowledge about the strengths and drawbacks of both to make the right choice.