Is your mattress causing back pain? If you wake up with aches in the morning that you didn’t have the night before, this article is written for you.
As a lifelong sufferer of mattress-induced lower back pain, I have 20 plus years of self-experimentation under my belt.
Some of these tips are low-hanging fruit and others are lifestyle habits that are more difficult but necessary to implement.
Here, I’ll share my troubleshooting guide to eliminate morning back pain once and for all.
is your mattress causing back pain?
So, you have morning back pain. Welcome to the club.
Maybe your back pain is annoying so you’re researching ways to fix it. Or, maybe you are one of the 16 million adults in the U.S. suffering from constant, crippling back pain.
Back pain is the ninth most costly medical condition in the United States, right after hypertension. And, thanks to desk jobs and screen overload, back pain strikes people of all ages.
According to the Georgetown University Health Policy Institute, 41 percent of adults with back pain are 18 to 44 years old.
Like all widespread medical conditions, the causes and solutions are not simple.
In this article, I’ll do my best to help you understand your back pain. With this information, you can create a short and longterm plan to reduce or eliminate symptoms.
I am not a doctor, chiropractor, or back pain expert. Instead, I am an engineer who has taken a systematic approach to reduce my back pain since the age of 10.
This is my experience, research, and advice.
She calls me “The Prince and the Pea”
I can sleep on a mattress for 3 nights (plus or minus three nights) and determine if my back is happy with it.
My spine is a highly sensitive and selective tool. My hit rate for a happy, pain-free back is one in every 50 mattresses. For this reason, Alex nicknamed me the Prince and the Pea.
My spine is a tool that really pisses me off. Without fail, if there is one worn-out coil in the bed, my back will find it.
Back pain became a problem at the age of 10 when I was benched during summer soccer. I discovered that the pain lessened over the weekend when sleeping at our family cabin.
After my parents bought me a new mattress, the back pain was gone. That is, until freshman year of college.
Dorm life came with a low-quality mattress and I was too cheap to buy a new one. It was time to learn how to reduce back pain when forced to sleep on a terrible mattress.
I upgraded the mattress with 2″ and then 4″ memory foam pads, experimented with sleep positions, adopted stretching routines, and put wooden planks under the mattress so it wouldn’t sag.
Even the expensive memory foam mattress toppers caused lower back pain in the morning.
But that was ages ago, and in adulthood I have started doing yoga, eating healthier, exercising more, and focusing on quality sleep. Additionally, I have seen nearly a dozen doctors, specialists, chiropractors, and physical therapists.
All of this has brought me… well, nowhere.
While I have a much better understanding of my body and how to manage back pain, I am still the Prince and the Pea. If the mattress is wrong, I am miserable.
But don’t lose hope! It is possible to lessen or stop your back pain. After over 20 years of experimenting and finding solutions to back pain caused by my mattress, this is the ultimate troubleshooting guide to eliminate lower back pain caused by your mattress.
Understanding Morning back pain
It’s common to wake up in the morning with some light back pain.
Your body has been still for, ideally, eight hours and it’s going to be stiff until you start moving.
Some simple stretches and exercises can help your back feel limber again. We’ll get to those exercises and more morning pain relief techniques later on.
What’s less common, is back pain severe enough to limit mobility or disrupt your sleep. Back pain at night is a red flag. For me, it’s the occasional flare-up that disrupts my sleep. However, for many, it’s a chronic condition.
If that’s you, I still recommend reading this article and taking notes. Next, I recommend seeing a doctor who can help you with a recovery plan.
If, like me, you’ve already seen several doctors and specialists and the pain persists, then reading, taking notes, and implementing is even more important.
Once again, I am not an expert, so if you have critiques, additional advice, or your own experience to share, please do so in the comments.
Can you get pain from a mattress?
As mentioned above, I have seen nearly a dozen experts about my back pain.
I tell them repeatedly that the pain disappears almost overnight when I sleep on the right mattress. Still, they all say the mattress is not the root cause of the pain.
I know they’re right. However, I also know from years of experience that my mattress will make or break my back.
Therefore, today we’ll focus on ways to optimize your mattress and sleeping posture to prevent morning back pain.
But I won’t forget about the many other causes of back pain. So, I’ll include lifestyle factors and how to optimize them.
Lastly, I’ll share the best stretches and strength exercises to keep your back strong and healthy.
What else causes morning back pain?
Since you landed on this article, you want to know why your bed is giving you back pain. However, it’s important to discuss other factors in addition to your mattress.
1. Aging and inflammation
Inflammation is our body’s response to pain and injury. As the years add up, inflammation in our body gradually increases.
2. Insomnia or poor sleep
Sleep is incredibly restorative. A great night’s sleep reduces inflammation and pain, whereas a bad one does the opposite.
3. An awkward sleep position
Fortunately, this one is a fairly simple fix that we’ll discuss.
4. Vitamin D deficiency
This is common, and it’s clearly linked to achy bones, especially in the morning.
Take a blood test and check your Vitamin D levels. Most people are deficient so supplementation is necessary.
5. Other conditions
Morning back pain is so common, that the symptom alone should not alarm you.
However, when you see a doctor, they’ll likely ask questions to rule out medical conditions such as inflammatory back pain, myofascial pain syndrome, or fibromyalgia.
How to reduce inflammation?
A sudden injury, like taking a golf ball to the head, will cause rapid inflammation and swelling as the body sends blood to protect and heal the wounded area.
Reducing this kind of inflammation is easy. Ice, rest and wait.
However, small amounts of inflammation developing all over your body is very different. Chronic inflammation sneaks up on you from all directions, making it more problematic and difficult to fix.
Here are habits to prevent or reduce chronic inflammation.
1. Exercise more
This is the most effective medicine out there. The best cardio exercise I have found is running. Yes, after studying what running does to your body, scientists learned that it can fix back and knee pain rather than cause it.
2. Sleep more
Just as important, if not more, as exercise. Your body needs to rest.
3. Eat healthy
Unhealthy foods increase inflammation. Stick to real foods, not the fake crap that you find in the center isles at the grocery store. Intermittent fasting is also an eating strategy proven to decrease inflammation.
4. Stress less and socialize more
Stress affects not just your mental and emotional health, but your physical health as well. I know this firsthand after suffering from job burnout.
5. Don’t smoke or drink
Okay fine, it’s okay to drink alcohol in moderation. Be careful about over stimulating with caffeine as well. It might be a good idea to try quitting coffee cold turkey.
Mattress causing back pain? Troubleshooting Guide
Step 1: Fix Your Mattress
The moral of my college dorm bed story is this: if at all possible, don’t sleep on a worn-out, low-quality mattress.
We spend a third of our lives sleeping, so investing in a quality mattress is non-negotiable.
How do I know if my mattress is causing back pain?
Your mattress is probably not the sole cause of your back pain. However, if moving from one mattress to the next consistently increases or decreases morning back pain, then it’s a factor you can’t ignore.
How to tell if your bed is causing back pain symptoms?
First, the bed should be comfortable. Otherwise, it’s likely causing morning back pain.
If you’re wondering, I did try “paleo sleeping” (sleeping on the floor). Even though my spine was in perfect alignment, it was terribly uncomfortable and therefore quite painful.
Second, if your back pain increases while sleeping on the bed and there are no other obvious reasons, then it may be the culprit.
Third, if the mattress is old and worn out, there’s a good chance your bed is causing morning back pain symptoms.
How do I know if my mattress is worn out?
If it’s creaky and deformed, it’s worn out. However, my back blows the whistle long before the mattress shows visible signs of wear. If you press your hands into the mattress and there are soft spots (typically where your butt rests), then it’s starting to wear out.
The typical mattress needs replacing after ten years of use. Based on my experience, adding fancy mattress toppers are only a bandaid fix. Data shows that a worn-out or low-quality mattress reduces sleep quality and can be the source of back pain.
In another study, 59 subjects compared their back pain on an old mattress (average was 9.5 years old) to a new mattress. On the new mattress, sleep quality and pain both improved.
What’s the best mattress for lower back pain?
According to science, a medium-firm mattress is best. A lot of people wonder if a hard mattress is bad for your back.
In this study on adults with chronic back pain, a medium-firm mattress is better than a firm mattress and could halve back pain symptoms.
This study further corroborated the findings, identifying the best mattress for back and hip pain were medium-firm and custom inflated (like the Sleep Number bed).
So, what type of mattress is best for a bad back? The data is pretty clear, and my experience corroborates this. If it’s too firm or too soft it’s a no-go.
The best mattress offers a 30+ day sleep trial
In my opinion, the best mattress for back pain is one that offers at least a 30-day sleep trial. The best mattress will be different for every individual, and only time will tell.
I have slept on hundreds of mattresses, and the only one that guaranteed me a pain-free morning was this Tempur-Pedic. I tried several other foam mattress brands and they didn’t compare.
Fortunately they were all returnable. I repeat: The best mattress is one you can return if it doesn’t work.
It’s impossible to know if it’s the right mattress on the showroom floor. Take your time on each bed, use your best judgment and only hand over the credit card if there’s a 30-day return policy.
That way, you and your plus one can make sure it’s perfect.
If you’re stuck with a bad mattress, then move on to the following steps to reduce back pain induced by your mattress.
Step 2: Fix Your Posture
Sleeping posture is the next important consideration if you have morning back pain. Whether you’re a stomach, side, or back sleeper, proper posture is the same.
Your ears, shoulders, and hips should be in alignment. So, how do you stop lower back pain in the morning?
Here are the tips to help you avoid morning lower back pain for each position.
Stomach sleeping is the worst posture for back and neck pain. The back is likely arched, and the neck is tweaked to one side. For stomach sleepers, it’s best to convert to a back or side sleeper.
But what if it’s comfortable and I can’t sleep any other way? If that’s the case, you should sleep with a pillow under your pelvis to relieve lower back pain.
Use a head pillow with a rounded side to support the natural curve of your neck, and a flat, soft side that cushions your head and prevents it from falling side to side.
Make sure the pillow isn’t too short or too tall. It’s also important to sleep with a pillow in between your knees.
If your lower back is still in pain, bring your knees toward your chest (fetal position) to relieve lower back pain.
If you’re sleeping properly on your side and still having back pain, try sleeping on your back.
Use the same head pillow with a rounded side to support your neck. The height of the pillow is critical.
In my experience, it’s rarely the mattress that causes upper back pain. Rather, it’s your pillow height.
If you’re sleeping on your back and your mattress is still giving you back pain, try putting one or two pillows (sometimes I need three) under your knees.
I am a back sleeper, and this works well for me when the bed is too soft. Even if the bed isn’t too soft this is helpful, especially for individuals with a curvy backside like me.
There is a lot of debate regarding which is better, back or side sleeping. In my opinion, back sleeping is best for body alignment, but if you’re a back sleeper in pain, try sleeping on your side. When my back hurts at night, variety helps me sleep better.
Changing your sleep posture
It’s not easy to change sleep posture. It took me months to convert from being a side sleeper to a back sleeper.
You have to be persistent. Positioning pillows in the bed to prevent you from switching postures in the night works well.
Alex recently switched and found placing a pillow below her knees kept her from rolling onto her side. Be creative!
Step 3: What else can I fix?
I have seen a dozen doctors about my back pain and I am currently working with a back specialist.
From the doctors, I learned that I have had diastasis recti since birth, a separation of the abdomen most common in women post-pregnancy. It’s rare in men, but unfortunately, I was born like this. Additionally, I have a slightly bulged disc in my lumbar vertebrae.
While both of these contribute to back pain, the doctors say that it’s minimal. Either way, neither problem can be fixed with medical intervention.
So, what else can I fix to decrease instances of morning back pain? Here are my recommendations. I know I have not tried everything, and I am always thrilled to learn about potential solutions.
If you have ideas to contribute, please share them in the comments.
In the pursuit of a pain-free, comfortable morning, and quality night’s sleep consider these tips to help you avoid lower back pain.
1. Limber up
How do I get rid of morning stiffness in my back?
Stretching of course. How about your hip flexors. Are they tight? I am guilty just like others who sit for a large portion of the day.
And what about your hamstrings, quads, and glutes. Tension in these muscle groups radiates up into the lower back and can cause stiffness and pain.
These are safe and effective bulging disc exercises that were recommended by my doctor. They’re great for anyone experiencing morning back pain.
Pigeon pose (left and right)
Cat cow pose
Runner’s lunge (left and right)
I like to do these stretches before bed. If I wake up with pain in the morning, I repeat them.
2. Get a stronger core
Strengthening your lower back and abdomen will help reduce back pain. I do these bodyweight back strength exercises in the morning to stimulate my muscles and increase blood flow.
Bird dog holds (left and right)
Glute bridge (left and right)
Leg extension crunch holds (left and right)
3. Break up the night
This one is very effective at easing sleep back pain.
When you get up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom or because of back pain, take five minutes to stretch in the dark. You can do the three stretches mentioned above.
Why rush back to bed if you’re already in pain? This will only help you improve the rest of your night’s sleep.
4. Move more
If you’re laid up from back pain, don’t lay around and wait for it to feel better. Movement lubricates your joints with synovial fluid and keeps your blood flowing to aid in the healing process the next day.
Don’t do movements that cause pain, but an active recovery workout or the bodyweight back strength exercises provided above can do wonders!
My most recent experiment is running to improve back pain. While it’s counterintuitive, I suspect my back has become too soft after years of desk work.
After training for and running my first marathon, the results are in! High-impact running toughened up my back, reduced (in not eliminated) my morning back pain, and, as a result, drastically improved my sleep quality.
Do you want to run a marathon? Follow our 3-Month Marathon Training Plan to safely ramp up mileage, stay injury free, and have a successful race.
5. Supplement Vitamin D
Again, this morning back pain tip is really easy, so don’t forget about Vitamin D.
Vitamin D deficiency can cause subtle pain, particularly in the back, and when you get enough, you’ll sleep much better.
6. Improve your non-sleep posture
I was absolutely shocked at the difference this makes. Over the decades, back pain has increased significantly, even while mattress technology improves. Why?
It’s because we have terrible posture. If you need help with this, we wrote an article titled ‘How to Fix Forward Head Posture.’
The most effective way to improve your posture is by using a wearable posture trainer. I never would have guessed this, but after we conducted a 2-week experiment, our results were conclusive.
We summarized our significant transformation in our UPRIGHT GO review.
7. Always have a plan B
Life is always going to bring you bad mattresses. So what are you going to do about it?
In addition to all the other advice I’ve shared, here are two backup plans are worth sharing. If you have other product recommendations, please share.
Bring a backup mattress
Most of the memory foam toppers are completely worthless. However, this travel mattress by Tempur-Pedic has helped me reduce back pain. The only problem is it’s difficult to transport on an airplane.
My latest backup mattress is my inflatable backpacking mattress. It’s excellent, and I have spent dozens of nights sleeping on this (on top of a bad mattress) while traveling.
I tested other camping mattresses, both cheap and expensive ones. Sorry about all the returns REI, but the Nemo brand was the only comfortable one.
Bring a backup pillow
Is it just me or are hotel pillows always way too fat or paper-thin? I don’t go anywhere without the Tempur-Pedic travel pillow.
The best thing you can do for morning back pain is taking a hot bath. If that’s not an option or inconvenient, try using a hot water bottle.
Even just a hot shower in the morning can work wonders on a stiff and aching back.
9. Try sleep stretching
Get it? Like sleepwalking? …never mind.
When you wake up in the morning and you’re still drowsy, stay in bed and stretch. Lay on your back and hug your knees or do spinal twists by resting your knees to one side.
You can be drowsy and productive at the same time!
Unfortunately, after 20 plus years, I have still not found the perfect solution to morning back pain.
If I could sleep in the same Tempur-Pedic bed every night of the year, that would be a different story.
But, traveling in South America doesn’t offer me that luxury. I will continue to update this post as I further improve my mattress-induced morning back pain.
How do I know if my back pain is serious?
Any amount of back pain is serious. Sure, it’s not life-threatening, but it’s annoying and can prevent you from leading a healthy and active life.
Additionally, back pain disrupts your sleep quality. For me, that’s enough right there.
When should I be worried about lower back pain?
Chances are, if you’ve read up until this point, you are worried about your lower back pain.
I hope this article has given you some tips to improve morning back pain in the short and long term. However, don’t stop there.
Maybe this troubleshooting guide helps you solve your mattress causing back pain. If not, make an appointment with a doctor and get yourself checked out.
30-Day Weight Loss Challenge
As engineers with a combined twelve years of health coaching experience, we needed to create a data-driven way for our clients to sustain weight loss.
Too many weight loss challenges involve a long list of what you can, cannot, and need to do every day. We’ve reduced the overwhelm and only require you to track five numbers a day — calories, steps, fiber, sleep, and waistline.
You’ll track five numbers daily to give you the highest return for sustainable weight loss. As a bonus, we’ll share our Weight Loss Bundle, which includes strategies, progress tracking tools, and additional weight loss plans.
Hey we're Ryan and Alex
The creators of Ryan and Alex Duo Life. We are a husband-wife duo and “lifestyle engineers.”
After eight years working in the corporate world as engineers, we left our high-powered jobs to tackle our true passion — helping couples engineer their best lives.
The synergy of our engineering minds and ten years of health coaching experience produced Ryan and Alex Duo Life. Our mission is to help you transform your bodies, minds, and relationship as a couple.
Join our 120,000 monthly readers
Receive our newsletter bringing healthy couples practical tips and life-changing ideas based on science.
As engineers, we know these to be true:
1. What gets tracked, gets improved
2. If you fail to plan, plan to fail
Therefore, when you join, you get our Goals and Habits Bundle to track and plan your best 2022.