How Your Mattress Can Cause Back Problems

woman stretching out back pain
Finding the right mattress to relieve back pain.

Back pain stands as the 5th most common reason for hospital visits and it’s the third most common cause for surgery. In fact, more people visit the doctor for back pain symptoms each year than for the common cold. And a common public misconception is that back pain is the result of a serious health issue like arthritis or a bone fracture. The truth is that: “Our own bodies are worse off most simply because of the many differences between the wilderness in which we evolved and the modern world in which we live,” wrote Rob Dunn of the Smithsonian Magazine. 


Our hominid ancestors stood upright because standing on our hind legs was a survival advantage. Then we could see longer distances, and simultaneously free our hands for other tasks (multitasking, although now mostly just texting.) The famous evolution depiction above everyone has seen before shows how our back evolved from an arched bridge to the current S shape. Admiringly prettier, the evolution of the human body did provide us with a new survival edge, but our back was never meant to support the extensive amount of weight we pile on. Humans are the only mammals that carry things in front of them, which is why our backs fail.

In 2013, anthropologists met at the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting to defend and argue about some aspects of human evolution. “We’ve known for a long time, since Darwin’s time, that humans have evolved, and that humans are not perfect, because evolution doesn’t produce perfection,” said Jeremy DeSilva, anthropologist at Boston University. We humans have a lot of aches and pains that our close mammal relatives don’t deal with. “Owners of a Homo erectus skeleton from around 1.5 million years ago and the Lucy skeleton, more than 3 million years old, both appear to have had back problems,” said Bruce Latimer of Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. Humans are the only mammals that have scoliosis, a spinal condition consisting of an abnormal curvature.

Over our now extended lifetime, the daily activities we punish our bodies with have a drastic effect on our back. “Even walking, with the process of moving our arms and legs to carry an upright back, results in a constant twisting and torquing of the spine, Latimer said. No other animal has to deal with a mechanical system in this way.” Walking, running, and sitting at the office—a 20th century invention, only adds extra wear and tear to our fragile spinal discs. So, problems like herniated disks develop.

So when you think about all the tasks you put your body through daily, back pain can surface from a myriad of contributing factors. Factors like medication side effects, irregular sleep patterns, caffeine, alcohol, tobacco use, sleep apnea, anxiety, stress, poor posture, lack of exercise and stretching, poor eating habits, unsupportive shoes, and of course, a poor mattress.

But in order to protect your back, good posture is important while sleeping. When your mattress stops working for you, it begins reinforcing poor sleeping posture. A poor mattress affects your daily life: 56% of people who reported lower-back pain said it stopped their normal routines like sleep and sex. When you sleep on poor quality mattress for years, you can develop insomnia, overall aches, pains, and back pain.

Since you spend 1/3 of your natural life spent sleeping, it’s important. A good, supportive mattress will relieve back pain by adjusting to your natural spinal alignment, relieving the curves of your spine at the neck, mid and lower back, so as to form a line (like below).


Looking at the natural position of your spine: from your back side, your neck should curve forward towards (or through) the throat. Your mid back curves out (or backwards), and your low back (or lumbar spine) curves forward to the stomach.

Your back muscles and ligaments work hard to protect your back during the day. And these very important muscles and ligaments need to relax and heal themselves while you sleep. When you continue to sleep on a poor quality mattress, your lower back is under continuous stress (during the day and at night), not to mention added stress on your neck and mid back.

And for mattress owners who have been sleeping on the same mattress for over 10, 15 years, that is probably making their back worse (since the lower quality mattresses should be changed every eight to ten years)


Is a Medium-Firm or Firm Mattress Better for Back Pain?

Sleeping on an air bed can trap air between your body and the mattress, which can cause back pain. For decades, Doctor’s recommended a “very firm” mattress for patients with back pain. But a recent study overturned that long-held belief. The study, “Sleep Quality in Patients with Chronic Nonspecific Low Back Pain” found that out of 300 patients with bad backs, two to one saw improvement with the the medium-firm mattress compared to a firm mattress. The research now shows that you don’t need a rock hard mattress to relieve back pain. The study helps people that are currently mattress shopping. It will help the customer trust their instinct, and not feel so cornered with one model of mattress. Instead of going to a store and picking the firmest mattress available, they can choose a brand like the Saatva Luxury Firm which is the medium-firm, “not too hard, not too soft” crowd-pleaser mattress.

Learn More About Saatva Mattresses

Saatva Classic Innerspring

Our flagship luxury mattress is expertly engineered with coil-on-coil construction for durability, a layer of memory foam for enhanced back support, and a cushiony Euro pillow top for extra comfort.


Loom & Leaf Memory Foam

Premium memory foam, handcrafted with eco-friendly materials. Breathable organic cotton, cooling spinal gel, and layers of high-density support foam assure a cool, comfortable night’s sleep.


Zenhaven Latex Mattress

100% Talalay latex responds to every curve for pressure-free support and responsive comfort. Talalay latex is supple and durable, for the ultimate in elevated sleep. (It’s naturally hypoallergenic too.)


Check out our guide for help on picking the right mattress to reduce back pain.