Are you wondering about memory foam mattresses ? Would you be interested in hearing the opinion of a physiotherapist on this subject?
I work in the homes of people who are often equipped with memory foam mattresses. For very specific reasons: because they have a risk of skin complications (bedsores) if they use more traditional mattresses.
However, I note that many people who are not exposed to this risk still wonder about the benefit in their case of a memory foam mattress.
Hence this article!
You will see that as usual, I rely on my professional experience , but also on research in international scientific publications (all references at the end of the article).
Happy reading 🙂!
Last updated: August 2023.
Declaration of financial interests: Amazon affiliate links (if you click on one of them and buy the product, I receive a small commission, but it costs you nothing or earns you nothing) . My complete declaration of links of interest is in legal notices.
What exactly is a memory foam mattress?
There are 4 main types of mattresses:
- the most common: polyurethane foam mattresses ;
- spring mattresses;
- latex mattresses;
- and memory foam mattresses, often made of foam, but different from more conventional mattresses.
In this article I focus on memory foam mattresses . And there are also different types.
Let’s see the difference between mattresses and mattress toppers.
Difference mattress VS mattress topper
You will find 2 different types of products for memory foam bedding:
- memory foam mattresses : it is used as the main support for sleep. It requires several centimeters of thickness and rests directly on a box spring or bed support;
- memory foam mattress toppers : it is thinner and designed to be on top of a mattress already in place (with memory foam or not). They are used with the intention of improving comfort or protecting the mattress.
The main difference between memory foam mattresses and mattress toppers is therefore where it appears on the bed : directly on the box spring or not.
The different types of memory foam mattresses
There are plenty of subcategories in memory foam mattresses.
- Memory foam mattress in viscoelastic foam . The most common. Often constructed of medium or high density viscoelastic foam;
- Open cell memory foam mattress . Made from open-cell viscoelastic foam, which in theory allows for better air circulation and heat dissipation. So especially in theory for people who sweat at night.
- Gel memory foam mattress . They have a gel in the memory foam to help regulate temperature and release heat. They can be cooler to the touch and more breathable than traditional memory foam mattresses.
- Hybrid memory foam mattresses : These combine viscoelastic memory foam with other materials, such as pocket springs or latex layers.
Finally, you will find them under names such as:
- orthopedic memory foam mattress or medical memory foam mattress (for people who are at risk of skin complications, pressure sores);
- for electric bed;
- for medical bed,
depending on the use for which they are intended.
Finally, some are tailor-made.
What are the benefits of memory foam mattresses?
I will now review the main reasons why my patients were interested in memory foam mattresses.
And indicate what is the evidence of benefits of mattresses for each of these indications, or what is reasonable to expect from them.
Avoiding bedsores and skin complications
Pressure sores are lesions of the skin (or other deeper tissues). They are caused if there is too much pressure, friction or shearing on the skin for too long.
Some people are much more at risk of getting pressure sores:
- those who have mobility problems (often associated with sensitivity problems), for example quadriplegic or paraplegic people in wheelchairs, or those with neurological diseases, or the elderly;
- those who very often remain bedridden or sitting in the same position without moving. Especially if they have pathologies such as diabetes, or if they are obese or incontinent.
One of the ways to prevent or treat bedsores is to be vigilant about the type of mattress for the bed or seat .
An international research team reviewed 80 studies to find out exactly which types of mattresses were best for preventing or treating pressure sores (Cochrane 2021). Here are their conclusions.
For treatment: when you already have a bedsore
Here’s what the research team says:
Considering the time it takes for a pressure ulcer to fully heal, static air surfaces could improve the chances of pressure ulcer healing compared to foam mattresses.Cochrane 2021
For treating a pressure sore, it seems that memory foam mattresses are less effective than air mattresses .
When you are at risk of bedsores and want to avoid them, memory foam mattresses seem more interesting than “classic” mattresses:
Compared to foam surfaces, responsive gel surfaces could reduce the risk of pressure sores, especially for people in operating rooms and long-term care facilities.Cochrane 2021
Conclusion: gel memory foam mattresses are more effective in preventing bedsores than conventional mattresses . But as much as alternating pressure air mattresses.
Is it good or bad for your back?
There are actually very few studies on the effectiveness of memory foam mattresses, on the back or any other problem (even pressure sores).
And none of these rare studies look specifically at people with back pain.
If we turn, by default, to the testimonials of people who use a memory foam mattress against their lower back pain (back pain), their sciatica or their scoliosis, you will find:
- who say it relieves their back pain;
- who say that it hurts their back more (increases pain).
Same thing for mattress manufacturers : some will praise the technologies used in memory foam mattresses, their positive support for the back. Others will tell you that it is very bad.
So what can we take from all this?
Here is my physiotherapist’s opinion: I think it is very difficult to get an idea a priori of the effect on back pain of a memory foam mattress without trying it.
The results of more general studies of the impact of bedding on back pain are also quite contradictory.
There is therefore an equal chance that sleeping on a memory foam mattress will increase or relieve your pain or back, or leave it the same ! And it is not possible to have an idea in advance.
And if the mattress relieves them , nothing says that the effect will last over time : back pain is something that fluctuates very much, and it is difficult to find the factors that make it possible to reduce it in a lasting manner in time .
And for babies and infants?
Infants can suffocate on air (air, inflatable) mattresses, even when the mattress is fully inflated (Doering 2017). It is therefore recommended not to let babies sleep on inflatable mattresses.
What about memory foam mattresses?
There isn’t a lot of good data on this.
Some suggest that memory foam mattresses can create a pocket and increase the risk of suffocation (Doering 2017).
- there is no reason to think that there are any benefits for a baby from sleeping on a memory foam mattress,
- we have less perspective on babies’ sleep on memory foam mattresses than if more conventional mattresses,
- there is at least one reported case of death by asphyxia following the use of a memory foam cushion in a 4-month-old infant (Sleep Positioner, anti- flat head cushion ) (Leshner 2012),
My choice would rather be not to have a baby sleep on a memory foam mattress .
However, it is up to you to make your own assessment of the benefit/risk according to your criteria.
It’s a bit like back pain: you will find feedback from people who sleep better on this type of mattress, and others less well.
There is no very convincing theoretical reason to think that these mattresses would be better for sleep for the majority .
There is only one study that compares the sleep of young and older adults sleeping on a memory foam mattress VS a latex mattress (Chiba 2018).
I’ll let you see the study in detail if you wish, but here’s my interpretation: the research team looked at many parameters. Out of the lot, some are better for latex mattresses (to a small extent). But most of the time there is no significant effect.
It is therefore difficult to say in advance whether or not you are more likely to sleep better with this type of mattress . Probably it won’t change things very significantly.
Concerning perspiration, there is no study that specifically evaluates one type of mattress compared to another.
There are several types of memory foam or non-memory mattresses that are theoretically likely to make you sweat less. And others too which, on the contrary, retain more heat.
Mattresses likely to make you sweat less:
- latex mattress;
- hybrid mattresses: combine springs and memory foam;
- gel memory foam;
- memory foam with open cells.
And in case of pregnancy?
There is no real reason to think that memory foam mattresses are more or less interesting for pregnant women than for women and men in general.
A study (Feldthusen 2021) still sought to find out if 34 pregnant women with pelvic pain (pain in the lower abdomen, towards the genitals) had less pain when sleeping on memory foam mattresses and pillows. , compared to 32 women sleeping with their usual mattress and pillow.
This is a very small study, not replicated. Even if it finds a small positive effect on pain and longer duration of sleep (12 min more): from the heights themselves, its potential biases are too important for us to be able to draw anything from it.
Especially since there is no real theoretical reason to believe that memory foam mattresses are more interesting during pregnancy than at other times in life.
What reimbursement from national health insurance for a memory foam mattress?
Here are the possibilities of financial coverage for memory foam mattresses by national public insurances as anticipated in different countries.
In France, for a product to be refundable by national and private insurance companies, it is necessary:
- that it is included in the list of reimbursable products and services (LPP);
- that you suffer from the health problem for which it is indicated on the LPP that it is reimbursed. It is the High Health Authority (HAS) which decides this;
- that you have a doctor’s prescription. ( Physiothers can also prescribe certain devices , as can other paramedics. Physiotherapists can prescribe certain mattresses to help prevent and treat pressure sores, but not memory foam mattresses.)
Are any memory foam mattresses included on this list? Yes, in the “Beds and bed equipment” section, then “Mattresses and mattress toppers to help prevent pressure sores”.
There are several dozen refundable memory foam mattresses. These are class II mattresses. Here are some of the brand names: Winncare, Carpenter, Pharmaquest (Nova Form, Via Form), Escarius, Tempur, etc.
And the full list:
Finally, in what case are these mattresses reimbursed?
- To help prevent and help treat pressure sores in the indications selected for patients weighing between 40 and 140 kg . If your risk of pressure ulcers is high, according to the clinical judgment of the prescriber, and the scores on the risk assessment scales (Baden).
- Coverage is limited to one mattress or mattress topper every 3 years.
Some memory foam mattresses are reimbursed by national and private health insurance companies, but only for people who have bedsores or who have a high risk of having them.
Specifically for the USA, Canada, the United Kingdom, and Australia
- USA: The coverage for memory foam mattresses by public insurances may vary depending on the type of insurance and individual circumstances. It’s recommended to check with your specific insurance provider for details.
- Canada: Public healthcare in Canada typically does not cover the cost of memory foam mattresses unless they are deemed medically necessary. Again, it’s best to consult with your insurance provider for information on coverage.
- United Kingdom: In the UK, memory foam mattresses are not typically covered by the National Health Service (NHS), and individuals often need to purchase them privately.
- Australia: The coverage may also be limited under public healthcare systems, and individuals usually need to purchase them privately.
Memory foam mattresses: is there a danger or side effects?
An international research team (Cochrane, 2021) looked very rigorously at the question of the positive and negative effects of the use of memory foam mattresses (among other mattresses).
To do this, she rigorously analyzed the results of 80 different studies which compare the evolution of people who use a memory foam mattress VS another type of mattress.
She was interested in it for a very specific population: young or elderly people at risk of pressure ulcers. These are generally people who have less opportunity to move than others, due to accidents or illness.
This is therefore a population at greater risk. We can therefore reasonably think that if there is little risk in these people, there is even less in the general population .
I will therefore rely on the results of this team to answer the question of the dangers linked to the use of memory foam mattresses. Here are their conclusions:
No type of mattress seems to cause more side effects than othersCochrane 2021
What are the described “ side effects ” associated with using a memory foam mattress (like any other mattress)? Here they are :
- sleeping troubles ;
- pain in the back or other parts of the body;
- excessive sweating, too hot;
- breathing problems (especially in people who have allergies or asthma);
- irritation to eyes, nose and throat when unpacking, as gases are emitted when unpacked (volatile organic compounds). A study studied chemical emissions into the air in the 32 days following the unpacking of a mattress. The measurements remained below the thresholds defined as potentially dangerous (Beckett 2022).
Don’t forget: adverse events of the same type also occur (rarely?) often with other types of mattresses !
In other words: it is possible that a memory foam mattress may cause you inconveniences, but the risk is not higher than with any other type of mattress.
There is therefore no particular danger in using a memory foam mattress.
When is a memory foam mattress not recommended ?
No study allows us to say that a memory foam mattress is less suitable for one type of person compared to another.
On the contrary, these are mattresses which are rather used for more “vulnerable” people, at higher risk of health problems.
I would therefore say that memory foam mattresses are simply not recommended for people who do not want to take the risk of spending money or taking steps to change the type of mattress, without being sure of a better outcome !
On what criteria should you choose the best shaped mattress for you? Comparative
Here are the main criteria to take into account in my opinion. It’s up to you to identify the most relevant from this list in your case!
- Mattress or mattress topper : depending on the equipment you already have.
- Mattress size : depending on the size of your box spring or bed support. 160×200, 140×200, 90×190, but there are many others.
- The price : from a hundred euros to several thousand euros.
- The type of material : gel, hybrid, visco-elastic foam with or without open cells (depending on whether you are prone to excessive sweating).
- Density . The higher the density, the firmer and more supportive the foam will be. A density of 4 to 5 lb/ft3 is considered ideal for memory foam mattresses.
- Thickness of the foam layer . The thicker the layer, the softer and more comfortable the mattress will be.
- Firmness . This is a very personal assessment.
- Guarantee . 1 year, several years, none.
Here are the mattresses that have the best feedback on Amazon (and more than 1k reviews), all criteria combined.
Most bedding stores (and stores like Ikea, Conforama) and many online stores also sell memory foam mattresses.
Summary: my physical therapist’s opinion on memory foam mattresses
I don’t have a particularly strong opinion on memory foam mattresses.
- If you are one of the people at risk of bedsores, it of course seems relevant to turn to these devices or those with air. What’s more, their acquisition or rental will be taken care of.
- If you are looking for a way to cure or significantly relieve your back pain or sleep problems , it is likely that these mattresses will do little or nothing to solve your problems.
- If you are simply looking for a more comfortable mattress , memory foam mattresses may be one of the mattresses that will meet your expectations!
For my patients who ask me what they can do for their back or sleep problem, I do not recommend that they change their mattress.
I simply answer their questions about mattresses if they address this topic themselves (as I do with this article, where I answer frequently asked questions from people online 🙂).
Tempur mattress: opinions of physical therapists and doctors
Many people arrive at my article by typing “tempur mattress doctors reviews” or “physio recommended mattress” into their favorite search engine. So I’m going to tell you a few words about it, I hope it will be useful to you!
- There are no specific studies conducted on Tempur mattresses
- Searching the English and French web, I did not find any independent advice given by a doctor on these mattresses .
- I see no reason to think that Tempur memory foam mattresses are any different from memory foam mattresses in general. The information given in my article is I think valid for mattresses of this brand, as for other brands!
Questions ? Feedback? See you in the comments!
These articles might also interest you:
Bedsores. Shi C, Dumville JC, Cullum N, Rhodes S, McInnes E, Goh EL, Norman G. Beds, overlays and mattresses for preventing and treating pressure ulcers: an overview of Cochrane Reviews and network meta‐analysis . Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2021, Issue 8. Art. No.: CD013761. DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD013761.pub2. Accessed February 20, 2023.
Air quality after unpacking the mattress. Beckett EM, Miller E, Unice K, Russman E, Pierce JS. Evaluation of volatile organic compound (VOC) emissions from memory foam mattresses and potential implications for consumer health risk. Chemosphere. 2022 Sep;303(Pt 1):134945. doi: 10.1016/j.chemosphere.2022.134945. Epub 2022 May 16. PMID: 35588879.
In babies. Doering JJ, Salm Ward TC. The Interface Among Poverty, Air Mattress Industry Trends, Policy, and Infant Safety. Am J Public Health. 2017 Jun;107(6):945-949. doi: 10.2105/AJPH.2017.303709. Epub 2017 Apr 20. PMID: 28426294; PMCID: PMC5425853.
And death of a baby. Leshner, M.D. (2012). Forensic engineering evaluation of CO2 re-breathing in infant bedding materials. Journal of the National Academy of Forensic Engineers , 29 (2).
Sleep. Chiba S, Yagi T, Ozone M, Matsumura M, Sekiguchi H, Ganeko M, Uchida S, Nishino S. High rebound mattress toppers facilitate core body temperature drop and enhance deep sleep in the initial phase of nocturnal sleep . PLoS One. 2018 Jun 27;13(6):e0197521. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0197521. PMID: 29949584; PMCID: PMC6021054.
During pregnancy. Feldthusen C, Fagevik Olsen M, Ejnell H, Elden H. Effects of a New Mattress and Pillow and Standard Treatment for Nightly Pelvic Girdle Pain in Pregnant Women: A Randomized Controlled Study. Int J Womens Health. 2021 Dec 16;13:1251-1260. doi: 10.2147/IJWH.S335977. PMID: 34938126; PMCID: PMC8687882.
Sleep Apnea. Bidarian-Moniri A, Nilsson M, Attia J, Ejnell H. Mattress and pillow for prone positioning for treatment of obstructive sleep apnoea. Acta Otolaryngol. 2015 Mar;135(3):271-6. doi:10.3109/00016489.2014.968674. PMID: 25649886; PMCID: PMC4389730.
HAS 2011. Support criteria for memory foam mattresses.
Written by Nelly Darbois
I love writing articles based on my experience as a physiotherapist (since 2012), scientific writer, and extensive researcher in international scientific literature.
I live in the French Alps 🌞❄️, where I work as a scientific editor for my own website, which is where you are right now.