If you have, or have ever had, significant back pain, you know that it can throw a wrench into your ability to get a good night’s sleep. According to the American Chiropractic Association, up to 80% of the U.S. population will experience back pain at some point in their lives—a figure that suggests a lot of us are tossing and turning at night in a vain attempt to get comfortable.
Mattresses may not always be the culprit of back pain, but the wrong mattress can certainly contribute to it. And the opposite is also true: The right mattress can go a long way toward relieving back discomfort. Memory foam and latex, in particular, are two of the best choices for back pain, owing to their conforming ability and pressure-point relief.
But there’s another type of mattress anyone suffering from back pain should know about: an adjustable air bed.
Adjustable air beds and back pain
“Adjustable air beds are a game changer,” says Terry Cralle, RN, a certified clinical sleep educator and co-author of Sleeping Your Way to the Top: How to Get the Sleep You Need to Succeed. “In fact,” she says, “one of the main reasons people buy adjustable air beds is for back pain relief.”
Here, we drill down on how adjustable air beds have your back when it comes to back pain.
How an adjustable air bed works
While other types of mattresses have support cores consisting of foam or springs, air beds contain individual air chambers that can be inflated or deflated to achieve a precise level of comfort.
Don’t mistake adjustable air beds for the blow-up mattresses that you pull out when friends or relatives come to town, though. These are permanent—and frequently quite luxurious—beds that the user adjusts by adding or removing air with a remote control, resulting in a customized degree of firmness. Depending on the specific model, the air chambers may be covered with layers of polyurethane foam, latex, memory foam, and other padding materials for additional comfort and support.
Most adjustable air beds have at least two chambers (and some have 10 or more), giving couples who share a bed individual control. So if your partner prefers an extra-firm surface for their sore back and you like something with more softness, you can each have exactly what you want. And it’s easy to readjust firmness at any time with the touch of a button.
How back pain affects sleep
Being in pain can make it hard to fall asleep and stay asleep for the seven to eight hours that experts recommend. Not sleeping well, in turn, can exacerbate daytime pain. That sets up a vicious cycle that negatively affects mood, job productivity, and overall health. The American Chiropractic Association estimates that back pain accounts for more than 264 million lost work days per year—that’s two days for every full-time worker in the country.
But not all back pain is the same. It may be chronic, or acute, or temporary following an injury or during pregnancy. That’s why the ability to adjust—and continually readjust—firmness is so valuable. “Back pain comes and goes over a lifetime, and these beds can go the distance,” Cralle says.
Our best adjustable air bed for back pain
Solaire Adjustable Firmness Mattress
Featuring precise 50 firmness settings on each side of the bed for personal customization. Natural latex and gel-infused memory foam layers provide luxurious comfort and support.
How adjustable air beds can help relieve back pain
Here are four reasons why an adjustable air bed can help alleviate back pain.
They provide critical lumbar support
Finding a comfortable sleeping position can be challenging when you’re experiencing back pain. “With a traditional mattress, you have a more difficult time finding a comfortable position because you can’t change the firmness of the mattress. Being able to make small changes can provide increased support to the lumbar spine and help to decrease back stiffness first thing in the morning,” says Tim Fraticelli, a physical therapist and founder of PTProgress.
By design, air beds provide good support for the natural curves of a sleeper’s body, and the adjustability feature allows for consistent weight distribution across the sleep surface, a significant contributor to comfort.
Learn more about lumbar support in a mattress.
They accommodate all sleeping positions
When it comes to keeping back pain at bay, the key is matching mattress firmness to your preferred sleeping position—something an adjustable bed can do whether you slumber on your back, side, stomach, or some combination. One study of sleepers with back pain found that when subjects switched to mattresses designed to accommodate their sleeping position, they noticed immediate improvements in pain and stiffness.
For maintaining neutral spinal alignment, back sleepers tend to do best with a medium-firm mattress; the idea that firmer is better “is an old wive’s tale,” Cralle says. Side sleepers can go a little softer to relieve pressure on shoulders and hips, and stomach sleepers—well, a firm mattress is best if you must, but overall it’s the least back-healthy sleeping position.
Learn more about how to match a mattress to your sleep style.
They have comfort layer options
Not only can you adjust the air chambers of an air bed, but you also have choices when it comes to comfort layers. A latex top layer, for example, provides a more responsive surface, while memory foam gives a more body-hugging feel. And no matter what material you choose, adjustable air beds will never sag in the middle—a big plus for back pain sufferers.
They work with adjustable bases
One of the most popular pieces of advice for those with back pain is to sleep with your legs elevated. That often means shoving a thick, firm pillow under your knees. Adjustable bases have changed all that, making it easy to raise the head or foot of the bed at the touch of a button. When paired with an adjustable base, an adjustable air bed gives you the ultimate in personal control. Set your firmness, choose your angle, and enjoy the promise of pain-free sleep.
“These mattresses are providing options we haven’t had before,” Cralle says. “It comes down to finding your best sleep surface for easing pain, which ultimately allows for more pain-free hours during the day.”
For more about adjustable air beds, see The Definitive Guide to Adjustable Air Beds.