Features October 2005 Issue

Selecting An Arthritis-Friendly Mattress

If you’re waking up miserable, you should think about making a change. A new mattress may be just the right prescription for you.

The woeful tale you tell is by no means uncommon among arthritis patients. You spend the better part of your day seeking relief from the pain in your joints. And then you spend your nights tossing and turning, drifting in and out of troubled sleep, your persistent discomfort robbing you of the refreshing slumber you need to face the challenges of the coming day. Is there anything you can do to escape this relentless cycle?

You can begin by evaluating your mattress, advises Erin O’Neill, PT, a physical therapist at The Cleveland Clinic. Since you spend a third of your life in bed, she observes, the role that your bedding plays in enabling sound, restorative sleep—or interfering with it—should not be underestimated.

Proper firmness
“For arthritis patients,” says O’Neill, “the most important features of a mattress are the firmness of its surface and the extent to which the surface accommodates gentle changes in sleeping position during the night.

“The mattress has to be firm enough to support the spine in a neutral alignment, yet soft enough to pad the bony prominences of the shoulders and hips. And when you’re in bed for six, eight, or 10 hours, your joints are going to gel up and your muscles will stiffen if you’re not able to roll over easily every once in a while.

“That’s why people with mattresses that are either too hard or too soft often wake up uncomfortable and unrefreshed. Either they’ve been immobile for too many hours or there has been too much pressure on their arthritic joints.”

The use of a proper mattress is most important for people with arthritis in the large, weight-bearing joints. “Your fingers and wrists may be sore when you wake up,” says O’Neill, “but that’s because they’ve been immobile for too long, and the mattress isn’t to blame. But if you’ve been sleeping on a surface that’s too soft, and you’ve been sinking into it as if you were lying in a hammock or overstuffed couch, it’s the shoulders, hips, and back that will be sore from the unequal pressure that’s exerted on them.”

Shop around
Begin your search for a new mattress as soon as you notice that your pain is at least as bad in the morning as it was when you went to bed the night before. “Keep in mind,” says O’Neill, “that there are no hard-and-fast rules as far as firmness goes. You just have to go into a store and try mattresses out by actually lying on them.”

As you shop, keep the following in mind:

• When in doubt, choose a firmer rather than softer mattress, since you can always cushion the surface with a sheepskin or egg-crate foam pad beneath your sheet.

• Avoid futons, which are too soft, and water beds, which are too difficult to get into and out of.

• If you prefer a softer mattress, use satin sheets or wear silk nightclothes, which will facilitate turning over with ease.

Among the vast array of mattresses available, O’Neill favors the so-called “pillow-top” products, which are firm in structure but have extra padding on the surface. She also notes the increasing popularity of mattresses whose surfaces are made of “memory foam,” a rubbery material developed by NASA that reacts to body mass and temperature and self-adjusts to an individual’s shape and weight.

Also look into air-filled mattresses, whose surface firmness can be controlled with a dial as they’re being inflated.

Once you’ve selected a mattress, positioning is as important as firmness. It should be low enough so that you don’t have to leap down out of bed, but high enough so that you don’t have to bend your knees excessively in order to get into and out of bed.