In the past, if you suffered back pain, your well-meaning friends and some doctors probably recommended firm mattresses. As it turns out, that guidance was wrong. Contrary to popular belief, your bad back doesn’t need a plank-firm mattress.
Instead, you should look for one that feels medium-firm. Such beds, particularly gel memory foam mattresses, have the best chance of reducing stiffness and soreness.
What’s a Gel Mattress?
A gel mattress has a single polyfoam or gel memory foam layer in its comfort system. These cooling gel pods generally occur in the form of swirls and beads and are intended to regulate temperature by gradually absorbing heat and drawing it away from the mattress’s top layer.
As a result, gel memory foam mattresses usually sleep cooler than most traditional memory foam mattresses. They also have open-cell designs or perforations to improve airflow further. This way, they can keep the user's body temperature cool all night long.
Additionally, a gel memory foam layer can be paired with a polyfoam layer to support the core. Alternatively, innerspring coils can be used in the case of gel hybrid mattresses. There is also the possibility of adding other layers to the comfort system to enhance the mattress’s overall performance.
Back Pain and Your Mattress
Your mattress plays a key role in how your body is positioned while you sleep. Many people know that posture is important but only think of it in the context of sitting or standing. That means they are likely to overlook the importance of using a mattress that’s the right fit for their body weight, shape, and sleeping position.
Lower Back Pain
Lower back pain is quite common and affects the lumbar region – the lower five vertebrates of the spine. This area has more curvature and motion range compared to other parts of your back, making it more susceptible to injury-related posture and movement. So, if your mattress doesn’t support you well, your lower back might bend or twist unnaturally.
If your mattress is too worn out or soft, your hips – which often carry more weight when you lie, may sink deeply and out of alignment with your spine, especially the lumbar region. When a misaligned sleeping position is held for an extended period, it can cause back pain or worsen it.
Mid-back discomfort or pain is less common than lower back issues. It’s generally identified as the area above your lumbar spine but below your rib cage. Discomfort, pain, and stiffness in this area often arise because of a lack of spinal support and poor posture.
Considering the time you spend lying while you sleep, spinal alignment issues are connected to your choice of mattress. After all, a mattress that doesn’t support your body adequately and cushions your pressure points can worsen minor discomfort and other back issues.
Upper Back Pain
Upper discomfort and other issues are less common than lower back pain but more common than mid-back pain. These issues affect the thoracic area – which runs from the bottom of your rib cage to the lower neck, covering the 12 vertebrae that connect to your ribs.
Mild or severe pain in your shoulders and upper back is often caused by unsupportive or awkward body positioning. If your mattress doesn’t support your upper body appropriately or your pillow isn’t at the right height, it can place undue pressure on the thoracic area. This heightens the risk of developing upper back discomfort or worsening existing upper back pain.
Similarly, neck pain is linked to many causes. Some people develop neck strains and sore areas because of non-optimal posture. This is particularly worse for people who sit for extended periods while working.
Your preferred mattress or pillow can either alleviate or worsen neck pain. So, choose a mattress that offers proper support and spinal alignment.
Sleeping Position and Back Discomfort
Each sleeping position creates pressure points or areas that require cushioning. This is why experts believe having a mattress that’s ideal for your sleeping position is crucial to alleviating and preventing back discomfort.
Stomach sleepers have more pronounced pressure points around the neck and lumbar region. If they use a pillow that’s too tall, it can cause excess bend in the upper back and neck. If the mattress is too soft, the pelvic region will likely dip too far, forcing your body into a U shape that will stress the entire spine as well as the ligaments and muscles in the lower back.
Back sleepers, on the other hand, have more serious pressure points in the lumbar region. If a mattress is too soft, your abdomen’s weight will cause this area to sink out of alignment with your hips and back. When it is too firm, it will not accommodate the natural curvature of the spinal ligaments and muscles in the lumbar area.
If you are a side sleeper, your high-impact areas or pressure points are where your body is widest – the hips and shoulders. Your mattress should be contouring enough to cushion and protect those pressure pints. It shouldn’t be too soft to let these high-impact areas sink deeply and out of alignment with the rest of your body.
Gel Foam Mattresses and Bad Back
While there’s no specific mattress type that cures or prevents backache entirely, people with a bad back can benefit from mattresses that reduce stiffness and soreness. Gel foam mattresses have a range of features and are likely to hit a sweet spot for people experiencing back pain and other back-related issues.
Better Pressure Relief
At some point, you may experience painful pressure points where some body parts dig deep into your sleep surface. Perhaps you have realized some beds lead to pressure points regardless of how much you turn, while others seem to alleviate this discomfort.
The ability to redistribute your body weight (on the mattress) to minimize pressure buildup is widely referred to as pressure relief and varies from one gel memory foam or any other mattress model to another.
Generally, gel memory foam mattresses that even disperse weight and prevent pressure points are said to be effective in pressure relief. A gel-infused memory foam usually contours closely to the sleeper, allowing the mattress to distribute weight evenly and prevent pressure points from forming.
A gel memory foam mattress with a supportive base can also ensure proper spinal alignment. If you already experience backache or other discomforts, you should get a gel mattress with a thicker comfort system.
While there are some exceptions, gel foam mattresses are usually medium-firm to medium-soft. This firmness level is ideal for most sleeper types, especially back sleepers and side sleepers who weigh 230 pounds or less. Stomach sleepers and other users who weigh more than 230 pounds may require a thin layer of gel foam over firm layers of latex or polyfoam.
When it comes to choosing the best gel memory foam mattress for your bad back, the keyword is ‘you.’ Mattress firmness levels can be quite subjective. User reviews often reveal that the same mattress can feel too hard for some people and too soft for others.
Apart from an individual’s preferences, these discrepancies exist because your weight and shape can influence the general feel of any mattress.
For example, on a soft hybrid mattress, a 130-pound body may feel like floating. However, for someone weighing over 200 pounds, the same mattress can feel overly firm, considering the sleeper will drop instantly to the mattress’s bottom support layer.
So here’s the rule - when you lie on a gel foam mattress and determine it to have the perfect blend of softness and firmness, that mattress is the best option for a backache-relieving mattress. That means you must consider details beyond what the gel foam mattress manufacturer has labelled it.
Even when it has reinforced layers, ‘support zones,’ or other whistles that cater to a backache-focused user – listen to what your body is telling you about the mattress.
Medium-firm gel memory foam mattresses are a great place to start because they support the spine’s natural curves, whether you are a side sleeper, back sleeper, or stomach sleeper. According to a recent study, a mattress’s design affects sleep quality.
While you may prefer to fall asleep in a certain position, you are likely to shift at night. Thus, the right memory foam and gel mattress must have a firmness level that accommodates various positions and allows you to wake up with less pain or discomfort.
This refers to the ability of a mattress material to wrap around the sleeper’s body. Gel-infused memory foam mattress contours less closely than memory foam but more than polyfoam which contours more closely compared to natural latex mattresses.
A certain amount of contouring is recommended to relieve pressure points. However, too much contouring might facilitate excessive sinking that may compromise spinal support and alignment.
Medium-soft or medium-firm gel foam mattresses offer pressure point relief (depending on your sleeping position) and cushion your heavier body parts while supporting them and preventing them from sinking deeper into the mattress.
If you sleep on your back, your hips and shoulders can settle into a medium-soft or medium-firm gel foam mattress, just enough to support your lower back and remain slightly concave.
When you sleep on your stomach, your abdomen will be held up and cushioned instead of caving in and forcing your lower spine into a hammock shape. If you prefer sleeping on your side, the right gel memory foam mattress offers enough support to your knees, hips, and shoulders while ensuring your entire spine flexes appropriately.
The ‘firm’ part of a medium firm foam mattress keeps the spine aligned. Suppose you were to take a photo of yourself in each of the three sleeping positions (side, back, and stomach). Your body should be straight with a neutral spinal alignment. That means stomach sleepers and back sleepers should be in a position to draw a straight line from the neck to the lower spine and the knees.
Similarly, side sleepers should lie in a position that allows them to draw a straight line along the mid-points of their ears, shoulders, and hips. If you already have the right gel-infused memory foam mattress and still wake up with back pain, perhaps the mattress is too old, or your backache could be a symptom of an underlying health condition.
If you are thinking about getting a polyfoam or gel foam mattress, edge support is another factor to consider. It is determined by the support core. For instance, gel foam mattresses often compress more around the perimeter. On the other hand, hybrid mattresses tend to hold up better, particularly those with reinforced edges.
Thus, when assessing a gel foam mattress for edge support, keep in mind that mattresses with thicker and plush comfortable systems will likely sag more around the edge. This may create discomfort when you sleep near the edge, limit usable space, and make it more challenging to get in and out of your bed.
If you struggle to sleep next to another person because you feel every time they roll over, you understand the importance of motion isolation. On a mattress with good motion isolation, you are less likely to wake up when the other person climbs into bed. However, on a mattress with improper motion isolation, you are likely to stay awake due to the other person’s tossing and turning.
While motion isolation might not seem like a big deal when choosing a gel mattress for back pain, it matters when you have a pet or partner who tosses and turns often. The last thing you want is anything waking you up because of restlessness. Both gel foam and memory foam mattresses offer excellent motion isolation, ensuring proper support even when you have a partner who tosses and turns while sleeping.
Both polyfoam and gel-infused memory foam mattress options offer pressure relief and moderate contouring. They are more responsive and bouncier than memory foam mattresses. Combining these features with excellent motion isolation and considering gel foam beds don’t trap body heat, they are ideal for sleepers who want to alleviate back discomfort or pain.
How it Feels to Sleep on a Gel-Infused Mattress
Polyfoam or gel-infusions can be added to different foam types, with the objective of making it feel cooler to the user. These versatile materials may appeal to different people, particularly those who tend to overheat or live in hotter climates.
As mentioned earlier, gel memory foam mattresses contour more closely and offer a classic hug feel while you sleep. Both polyfoam and gel infusions vary in firmness, but they are more responsive than memory foam and do not conform closely like memory foam. Also, some memory foam mattresses use different formats like ridged cutouts, a thicker layer, or gel pods in the lower back section to improve their performance.
Note that most gel memory foam mattresses are made with a layer of gel foam over a coil base or foam. Some manufacturers use a thin layer of gel foam tucked between different layers of polyfoam, wool, or other materials.
These different designs and material choices can alter the general feel of the mattress. Similarly, your preferred sleeping position can affect how you feel when you lie on a polyfoam or gel foam mattress.
If you prefer sleeping on your side, choose a medium-soft gel memory foam mattress that feels like it’s cuddling your neck, shoulders, and hips while allowing your spine to stay aligned. Ensure the mattress is dense enough to keep your body from entirely sinking into your bed but still facilitate the right contouring level to remain comfortable.
When you want to sleep on your stomach, you need a gel-infused memory foam mattress that supports your neck, shoulders, hips, and legs - a mattress that’s slightly firmer than traditional memory foam mattresses but still on the soft side. That means if you choose a soft mattress, there’s a chance your hips will sink into the bed, potentially throwing off your spinal alignment.
Thus, unless you are considering a firm gel memory foam mattress, these mattresses are not ideal for stomach sleepers unless you have a lighter body.
Lying on a gel foam mattress feels comfortable if the bed is firm enough to support your neck, shoulders, hips, and legs. Luckily, you don’t need a firmer option like stomach sleepers. In fact, most medium-soft and medium-firm gel-infused memory foam mattress options offer enough support for back sleepers.
Generally, combination sleepers find it challenging to choose the right memory foam and gel mattress due to their tendency to shift and change position throughout the night. Luckily, gel memory foam mattresses are ideal for such users as they spend more time on their back and sides than on their stomachs. Be sure to choose a medium-firm gel memory foam or polyfoam mattress that offers support, allows contouring, and alleviates back pain.
Gel Mattress Vs. Memory Foam Mattress
Memory foam is well-known for its effectiveness in relieving pressure and its ability to absorb movements, ensuring uninterrupted sleep for co-sleepers. However, it tends to trap heat, leading to a dilemma for users in hotter climates. To work around this issue, manufacturers developed gel-infused memory foam mattresses.
Both mattress types are made from polyurethane foam material and share many similarities. These include:
Neck and Head Support
Most mattresses made of polyurethane foam usually conform to the sleeper’s position. Their shape is moldable and engineered to offer sufficient neck and head support. To maximize this support, it’s recommended to invest in a supportive pillow in addition to your preferred gel foam or memory foam mattress.
Reduced Motion Transfer
Both memory foam and gel mattresses have limited motion transfer. That means when you are in bed, you will not feel your kids, partner, or pet shifting positions next to you or getting in and out of bed. So, if you share a bed with someone, the steadiness of a memory foam and gel-infused memory foam mattress is an advantage for a night of uninterrupted sleep.
Most people associate regular memory foam with firmness. However, the new memory foam and gel foam mattresses vary from ultra-soft to extra-supportive in terms of firmness. There are also medium-firm gel memory foam mattresses for back sleepers who need support. Meanwhile, side sleepers can use soft to medium-firm gel or memory foam mattresses that cradle them with comfort.
It’s up to you to choose between medium vs firm or plush vs firm gel memory foam mattresses. Be sure to pick a gel foam mattress or a regular memory foam mattress that matches your sleeping preferences and comfort. Regardless of your needs or preferences, you will find the right mattress.
While gel foam mattresses and memory foam mattresses have many similarities, their differences make each model stand out.
A gel-infused memory foam mattress is generally considered cooler than most memory foam mattresses. This is because the top layer comprises a cooling gel designed to wick away moisture and heat. For users who want to sleep hot, these mattresses can offer the cool-to-the-touch comfort they need.
On the other hand, most memory foam mattresses have a closed-cell structure that traps heat (heat retention). This keeps the user cozy and warm while they sleep. Those who get chilly at night are likely to feel warm while lying on this mattress. Others may prefer open-cell memory foam mattresses that allow part of the heat to escape.
A gel-infused memory foam mattress bounces back to its original shape faster than a traditional memory foam mattress. Their gel pods elevate their bouncy feel that moulds your body and reshapes when you get out of bed. On the contrary, closed-cell and open-cell memory foam mattresses tend to hold their shape a little longer, even after you leave your bed.
Gel-infused mattresses are made of more costly materials. That’s why they come at a higher cost than memory foam mattresses. The cost of both mattress types will depend on the brand – some brands and models are costlier than others.
A gel memory foam mattress is good for those who overheat while they sleep but appreciate the cradling associated with traditional memory foam. The gel's cooling properties regulate temperature, while the traditional memory foam ‘hugs’ you when you lie down.
These mattresses also offer a combination of support and pressure relief for back sleepers, side sleepers, and those with back and neck pain. Considering that a gel memory foam mattress is often medium-soft to medium-firm, they are suitable for back pain and other related health issues. If you are considering a new mattress purchase, you may want to consider one that ensures comfortable sleep all night long.