Monday, March 18, 2013

Should You Buy a New Mattress?

     Do you have back pain?  
     Have you been tempted to spend thousands of dollars on a new mattress because you accept as truth the propaganda that says an expensive new bed will keep you from feeling stiff and achy in the morning? 
     Has someone told you to change your mattress as a way of fixing back and neck pain, hip arthritis, headaches, snoring, insomnia and fatigue?
     Have you read that "you spend one-third of your life in bed, so you should make this investment, for the sake of your health"?
     I checked the on-line mattress websites and was surprised to read that "most doctors advise patients with back pain to buy a new mattress."
     Is this true?  Why haven't I heard about it?
     And why are the "studies" showing certain mattresses help pain more than others all funded by mattress-making companies?
     I've been practicing medicine for twenty years, and not once have I advised a patient to buy a new mattress.  Mattresses are expensive:  like your kitchen table, they should last a decade or two.  Even the stained, second-hand, single, spring-type mattress I bought for my two aging dogs cost $75.  I love my dogs, but I'm not going to buy a high-tech mattress for them.
     I read medical journals on a daily basis, yet I don't recall seeing scientific articles that "prove" a special mattress will make a difference in a person's back or neck pain or, for that matter, any physical symptoms. Have I missed something in the New England Journal of Medicine, or Lancet, or the American Journal of Family Practice, or JAMA?
     I have found, when it comes to back pain, that what really makes a difference is taking a load off your back by losing abdominal weight.  If you had to carry a 25-pound bag of dog food in front of you all day, wouldn't you have back pain?  If you put it down, wouldn't it get better?
     It also helps to strengthen muscles that protect the back, especially the abdominal muscles:  rectus abdominus, internal oblique, extrernal oblique, and transverse abdominus.  And it's a good idea to exercise, as well, the opposing muscles:  paraspinal, latissimus dorsi, and gluetus maxiumus and medius, as well as the quadriceps. 
     When patients suffer from musculoskeletal pain or overuse injuries, it's because they've been attempting to use certain muscles beyond the capacity of those muscles to withstand the workload.   If you want to be able to lift 50-pound bags of horse feed, or yank the pull-cord on a lawn mower, or run two miles without having pain the next day, you have to strengthen the muscles required to do those tasks.  Otherwise, those muscles cry out.
     Therefore, back pain is almost always a consequence of having weak abdominal, thigh and back muscles--so weak that the activities of daily life are too much for your poor back to carry.  Back pain is not caused by a bad bed. 
     Why do people want easy, expensive fixes for constitutional problems that require exercise, diet, and general fitness?  Why spend $2,500 on a special mattress "used by astronauts" when doing fifty situps and a few exercises with dumbbells every day is what you really need?
      Save your money--don't buy a new mattress.  Instead, lose that extra abdominal weight you're carrying around, start do sit-ups and leg-lifts every say, spend $20 on two pairs of weights--and use them. 
     Admit it:   you're being American again, when you fall for something easy--like a pill, or a new car, or an expensive bed that you're going to have to rationalize for the next twenty years, by telling yourself "how much it helps," in that way we all have of selling ourselves on something we've already bought.
     Forget the bed, forget the hype, stop kidding yourself.  I know it's boring, but weight loss and exercise are the keys to sleeping all night, and waking refreshed and pain-free. 


  1. On a related note, more and more people are associating their aches and pains with their expensive memory foam mattresses. They are very comfortable, but you don't move. You are likely to wake up in the same position you were in when you fell asleep. With my traditional mattress, I rolled around throughout the night. Now, I don't move an inch.

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