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Mattress theory may not hold firm

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November 17, 2003|Jane E. Allen | Times Staff Writer

People with back pain have long been told to invest in a firm mattress -- the more solid, the better. Now it turns out that a firm mattress may not be the best choice.

In one of the first studies to put mattress firmness to the test, scientists from the Kovacs Foundation, a nonprofit Spanish research institution, swapped out the beds of 84 men and 229 women with chronic low back pain. They randomly replaced the beds with either a firm spring mattress or a medium-firm spring mattress.

Before and after the experiment, participants were asked to rate the severity of their back pain while lying in bed and when arising, as well as how disabling their back pain was.

After three months, those who slept on medium-firm mattresses reported less back pain during the daytime, while lying in bed and when getting up in the morning than those who slept on firm mattresses. Those with medium-firm mattresses also took fewer painkillers, according to results published in Saturday's issue of the Lancet.

Dr. Scott D. Boden, director of the Emory Spine Center at Emory University in Atlanta, welcomed having some research into what he called a "surprisingly understudied" issue.

The assumption that a firmer mattress works better for back pain is based "on a few people that at some point had back pain and either slept on a floor or put a board under their bed and got better," he said.

Not that he doesn't advise experimenting with a board or sleeping on the floor just to see if patients might get some relief.

"My own bias is that there's probably not one best answer that is going to work for everyone," Boden said.

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