Now's the Time to Make a Better Bed for Pain Relief - Mattresses

Last updated: May 2022

Sleep should be a time for the body to heal. Yet, poor sleep is linked to greater pain sensitivity.1 Unfortunately, people living with rheumatoid arthritis face this theft of sleep every night due to joint and tissue pain. Painsomnia (sleeplessness caused by chronic discomfort) leads to the release of stress hormones at bedtime, which activates an inflammatory response.

People with rheumatoid arthritis should hope to avoid this further aggravation of their condition. Yet, without quality sleep, the cycle repeats itself, causing more stress, more trouble falling asleep, and more pain sensitivity. Disrupted sleep practically guarantees more flares.2

RA treatment may be top of mind among rheumatology specialists, but we can also do ourselves a favor by making smarter choices about our sleeping space. It’s where we spend nearly a third of our lives, after all.

Given that four out of five people with arthritis-related conditions suffer from poor sleep, this three-part series takes a closer look at the bedtime trinity: mattresses, pillows, and blankets.3

Mattress features and considerations

Two things you’ll discover as you prowl online for advice about mattresses:

1. Most advice comes as thinly veiled sales.
More expensive doesn’t always mean better. Yes, sometimes “you get what you pay for,” but this doesn’t mean you can’t look for added value beyond the price tag while shopping for a new mattress. Sometimes, a mid-range mattress can do the job when bundled with comfort accessories like pillows and heating aids.

Still, it’s important to remember that mattresses have a life cycle. The Sleep Foundation recommends replacing yours every six to 8 years.4 If you consistently wake up sore, notice dips or sags, or hear creaking, it’s probably time to buy a new one.5

2. “Trial and error, do what’s right for you” isn’t always helpful.
Because we all experience RA differently, there’s really no single mattress that works for everyone. But a new mattress is a major purchase: How can we know what works and what doesn’t?

We really need to talk more specifically about features that benefit people living with joint pain. Thankfully, chronic pain communities can serve as a great source of feedback and lived experience when mattress shopping enters the picture.

Feeling cautious about online advice

People with arthritis need mattresses that do two things:

  1. Support the spine.
  2. Relieve joint pressure.

Some do one better than the other, so it’s important to find a mattress that provides a balance of both.

Mattress types

  • Foam (including memory foam) is a plush mattress designed to “hug” the body evenly.
  • Innerspring is the classic mattress consisting of springs with cushioning, with good responsiveness.
  • Latex mattresses come in multiple support levels, respond well to tossing and turning, and provide pressure relief.
  • Hybrid mattresses combine foam, coils, and other materials to achieve both comfort and support.
  • Air beds have air-filled chambers surrounded by cushioning for customizable firmness.

Relevant mattress features

  • A “zoned” mattress provides pressure relief in sensitive areas and added support in heavier areas (like the lower back).3
  • A “contoured” mattress redistributes weight more evenly, leading to better pressure relief.6
  • If you have trouble getting in and out of bed, you’ll want firmer edge support.6
  • If you turn from side to side frequently, a more responsive mattress allows more freedom to move with ease.6
  • Consider temperature regulation a chief feature when buying your next mattress. Being overly hot can disrupt sleep, as you need a cooler body temperature, but your joints may require applied warmth. A heated mattress pad, warm compress, or heated blanket can prevent locking joints. When joints need it cold, a cool gel mattress topper may work.6-9

Sleep position

Different positions bring pain and pressure to different areas of the body. Take your preferred position into consideration when mattress shopping.

  • Side sleepers experience more hip and shoulder pain.
  • Stomach (prone) sleepers deal with more pain in the lower back and hips.
  • Back (supine) sleepers face fewer problems with spinal alignment, but joint problems can still occur if their mattress isn’t supportive enough.

Body type

  • Smaller and lighter people may find more joint relief on a plush mattress.
  • Larger and heavier people may find a firmer mattress provides the joint support they need.

Other mattress tips

Finding the perfect mattress will require in-store testing, but it’s worth the effort. Consider in advance your particular pain points and areas where you need added support.

If you’re looking to replace your current mattress, make sure you can trial it for at least 100 nights and seek out a warranty against premature dipping and sagging.

Next in the series: a discussion about how pillows can bring relief — or continued pain — to people with rheumatoid arthritis.

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This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

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