What is the best mattress for you? That depends. First, what type of mattress is best for you? Then within that type, what features are best for you? Five basic types of mattresses are discussed here: Spring (Innerspring), Memory Foam, Latex Foam, Air Beds, and Water Beds.
About 80% of all mattresses sold in the United States are innerspring mattresses. So if you buy an innerspring mattress, you’ll have plenty of company, but will you be getting the best mattress for you and your spine? Without doubt, there are pluses and minuses to any type of mattress. Spring mattresses offer a strong support to your back, and are often supplemented with various layers of foams to offer softness and greater comfort.
If you decide to purchase a spring mattress, it is important to consider the number and type of coils. Generally, a higher gauge coil with ample numbers (at least 375 in a queen sized bed) is preferable. The distribution of coils is also important. Ideally, there would be a greater number of coils in locations of your body that required greater support (e.g. the curve in your lumbar spine) and fewer coils in places that require less support (e.g. your shoulders, hips, and knees). Many mattresses do attempt to use this distribution for their coils. However, unless the mattress is custom made for you, all that the mattress makers can do is estimate where they think that your shoulders, hips, and knees will be and place the coils accordingly. Mattress makers use normative data from the population at large to make these estimations. However, chances are that you are not “average”, and so the support/comfort distribution may or may not fit your body.
Memory foam mattresses inherently seek to conform to your body shape, applying pressure at places of least resistance such as your lumbar spine. Not all memory foam mattresses are created equally. Some are softer and some offer more resilience. A softer mattress (of any type) might feel great initially…but as the nights pass and your lumbar spine is chronically not supported by your mattress, you may start to feel aches and pains and wish you had chosen a mattress with greater support. Memory foam is given a grade called the indentation load deflection (ILD), which tells you how soft or hard the mattress is. An ILD of 10-16 is a preferable surface for most individuals. Memory foam mattress bases that are marked with “H.R” indicates that the mattress has a good deal of resiliency. A memory foam mattress that contours to your pressure points and offers resilience to the less supported structures is ideal. These mattresses are often visco-elastic memory foam with latex foam added, or a multi-layered system. Drawbacks to a high-quality memory foam mattress include increased price. In addition, some people want a more springy type of feel.
Latex foam has the ability to conform well with the body much like memory foam. However, latex foam offers a springy resistance similar to coil mattresses. It is often thought that a person who likes the feel of their springy coil mattress, but wants less motion transfer or has a problem with the feel of the springs underneath, will find a latex foam mattress the best of both worlds. While overexposure from natural latex gloves has caused a small percentage of medical workers to become allergic to latex, many of the latex mattresses use a composition that takes out the natural latex proteins and seems to render the resulting latex foam hypo-allergenic.
Air mattresses have the benefit of being able to alter the pressure on one side of the bed in relation to the other. This is convenient for people sleeping with a partner. Unfortunately, the consequence to dual chambers is a firmer dividing piece down the middle of the mattress. Air beds will provide varying degrees of support but will not conform as well to the body as memory foam or latex foam. However, manufacturers have begun making air beds with multiple chambers so you can customize the support by zones.
Water beds are pretty much the opposite of air beds. These beds conform and are soft and often comfortable, but they typically do not provide the necessary support that your back requires. Additionally, they are very heavy when filled and impossible to move, and emptying and refilling them takes time.
There is no single best “type” of mattress, just as there is no single best “mattress.” Each type of mattress has options that impact on the quality (number of springs, distribution of springs, ILD rating, etc). The important features are the quality of the individual mattress and the ability of it to offer you adequate support and comfort so that you awake each day feeling refreshed and pain-free.