What is an orthopedic mattress? Experts advise

Waking up with back or joint pain? This is everything you need to know about how an orthopedic mattress can help, and whether one is right for you

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Orthopedic mattresses mattresses are designed to support your spine and alleviate pressure on your joints. They use high-quality materials and they tend to be pretty firm to prevent your joints or back sinking too far into the bed.

So far so good, but 'orthopedic' isn't a protected term, so anyone can call any mattress 'orthopedic' - even if it isn't specifically designed for back or joint pain. 

Here's everything you need to know about orthopedic mattresses. I'll go into detail on their benefits, drawbacks, and what to look out for when you buy one. 

What is an orthopedic mattress?

Orthopedic means that something relates to muscles, joints, and bones. Medicine for sore muscles and bones, therefore, is orthopedics. In turn, orthopedic mattresses are mattresses designed to tackle sore muscles, joints, and bones. They're meant to tackle back pain, joint pain, and sore necks. 

They tend to come in either firm or extra firm, designed to support your spine and alleviate pressure on your joints, for a more comfortable sleep - this firmness means you’ll also move less in the night.

A close up cross-section of the different layers in a mattress

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Most orthopedic mattresses are hybrid mattresses. That means they combine a memory foam top with an innerspring core. Memory foam is normally used closest to the top as it has the ability to conform to the shape of your body. Distributing your weight more evenly, it also reduces the risk of developing painful pressure sore where your hard joints meet the mattress. An innerspring system is also used to help with the support and firmness of the mattress.

However, they don't have to be hybrids. Some orthopedic mattresses only use springs or memory foam. Some also just use latex and it’s said to be particularly comfortable for those who sleep on their front - and also offers a naturally hypoallergenic and supportive sleep surface. 

Every orthopedic mattress will be different, but it’s their firmness that makes them unique, and giving support to people with back issues, joint pain and other issues. What ultimately matters is that the bed relives pain in your joints and your back.

What are the benefits?

One of the benefits of an orthopedic mattress is that it's designed to provide good spine support. This is crucial for alleviating back pain. The spine is the one part of your skeletal system which can be most affected as you sleep. If you don’t have the right support, over time, your spine alignment could be damaged. Instead, an orthopedic mattress will keep the spine in a healthy and neutral posture.

Black and white bedroom with mirror hanging over bedside tables

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Another benefit to orthopedic mattresses is that they can ease painful joints. Joint pain can be caused if your mattress doesn't have a little sink-in factor. In the mattress world, this is called 'pressure relief'. Imagine sleeping on the floor; it would be pretty sore on your hips, shoulders, and knees. While a good orthopedic mattress is firm, it will have just enough give that your joints can sink into the bed a little, removing this pain. 

bedroom with bed, pillows and nightstand

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We’ve all had those mornings where we’ve woken up with a sore neck - and this could be down to the wrong mattress or pillow. The hybrid element of most orthopedic mattresseses can help to stop you from tossing and turning as you sleep and provide support to the spine and shoulders, especially if you sleep on your side. 

Don’t be surprised to see a difference in your posture after sleeping on an orthopedic mattress too - as the more aligned your spine is the better your posture will be. While the mattresses also reduce pressure points so will help to prevent the development of poor posture habits caused by discomfort and pain during sleep. 

How long does an orthopedic mattress last?

'Be careful not to fall for fake orthopedic mattresses', says Alex David, Head of eCommerce at Homes & Gardens. '"Orthopedic" isn't a protected term, so some mattress companies will promote their mattresses as being 'orthopedic' even if they don't explicitly target aches and pains'. Look out for key orthopedic features like lumbar support, dedicated zones for joints and hips, and pressure-relieving memory foam. Otherwise, you're not buying a truly orthopedic mattress. 

'Orthopedic' mattresses can command a higher price tag than other mattress types. That's not only a drawback in itself, but, if the mattress isn't truly orthopedic, you could be overpaying for a standard memory foam or hybrid mattress. 

Alex David author profile photo
Alex David

Alex is our Head of eCommerce, overseeing all our reviews content, including mattresses and bedding. After graduating from Cambridge, he first trained with the iconic Good Housekeeping Institute, reviewing a wide range of homes, pet, and garden goods. He then moved to BBC Gardeners' World, before joining Homes and Gardens. 

Who does an orthopedic mattress suit?

Naturally, an orthopedic mattress is best for those suffering from back pain. This study in 2014 also showed that a firmer mattress is better for those who suffer from back pain, especially chronic back pain. 

Elderly people, especially those who suffer from arthritis, can also benefit from an orthopedic mattress. Arthritis causes inflammation and damage to the joints - as you sleep your levels of cortisol lower, while being horizontal causes inflammation in the joints, which makes them stiffen. The pain can make it challenging to find a comfortable sleeping position and stay asleep throughout the night. So the memory foam, springs and firmness make for a more restful and quality sleep.

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Orthopedic mattress FAQs

How long does an orthopedic mattress last?

An orthopedic mattress is an investment, and it will last longer than a traditional mattress - 8 - 10 years, though it can vary depending on how you use it, how you care for it and the quality of materials used. As we’re said to spend one-third of our lives asleep it’s worth investing in a mattress with quality materials - don’t be afraid to ask questions or do your own research about the durability, comfort and longevity of the materials before you buy.

How should I maintain an orthopedic mattress?

Once you bring it home, make sure you look after it  - regularly rotating the mattress helps distribute wear evenly and prevents sagging in certain areas. Using a mattress protector can also protect it from spills, dust, and allergens.

You can also influence the lifetime of the mattress by you or your partner's weight and sleeping habits. The heavier you are or the more frequently you move during sleep the more the mattress could experience wear and tear like sagging. 

You should always bear in mind that back pain isn't  always caused by your bed. Sometimes it's symptomatic of a different injury or illness. While a new mattress can fix back pain, you should always discuss any back pain with a doctor to rule out any other causes. 

Sarah Finley

Sarah is a freelance journalist - she covers a variety of subjects, including sleep, health and fitness, beauty and travel. As a journalist, she has written thousands of profile pieces - interviewing CEOs, real-life case studies and celebrities. Sarah can normally be found trying out the latest fitness class, on a plane to an exotic destination or getting an early night - and of course, writing about them.