The human body is a collection of curves and points and planes. While each body is different, we are mostly made up of the same things: shoulders, hips, spines, knees, etc. When we lie down on a mattress, certain body parts tend to press down into the bed more than others. For example, the shoulders and hips make more contact with the bed than other parts of our body, simply because of the way we are shaped.
If your mattress doesn’t provide good pressure relief, though, this can lead to pain in areas called “pressure points,” improper spinal alignment, and ultimately, worsened sleep. If you are waking up with pain, it may be because your mattress isn’t providing good pressure relief.
In this guide, we’ll focus on pressure relief and its connection to mattresses. We’ll discuss pressure points, sleep quality, sleep position, which mattresses provide pressure relief, and the health benefits of a mattress with good pressure relief.
Any area on the body that is sensitive to pressure1 or pain can be considered a pressure point. Another definition of a pressure point is a part of the body that one intentionally presses down upon to help muscles relax, increase blood flow, and move “qi” energy in Chinese medicine\2. Here, we’ll be talking about pressure points as sensitive areas in the body.
These types of pressure points are also more impacted than other parts of the body in terms of circulation1. When you lie down in one static position for a long period, such as sleeping, these sensitive areas of the body tend to have reduced blood flow. This can lead to bedsores3.
The parts of the body most prone to pressure points and bedsores are bony areas like the heels, ankles, hips, and tailbone3. The shoulders, buttocks, sit bones, and the backs of the knees are also prone to pressure and bedsores4.
Even if your body doesn’t progress as far as developing bedsores, these pressure points make consistent contact with the bed throughout the night, and if your mattress isn’t providing adequate pressure relief, it can lead to worsened sleep quality5 and pain6.
To illustrate how important pressure relief is, lie down on a wooden floor. You’ll immediately feel an increase in pressure in these sensitive areas because a wooden floor provides zero padding for these bony or protuberant parts of the body. Soon this pressure may turn to pain, and if you were to remain there long enough, that pain would likely turn to bedsores1.
This is why pressure-relieving mattresses are especially important for certain groups7, such as bedridden people, the elderly, people in wheelchairs, and those with diabetes, circulation problems, and poor nutrition. These people could benefit from specific, medical-grade beds for pressure relief that alternate and redistribute pressure through the night.
Learn More: What are the Best Mattresses for Herniated Disc Pain Relief?
For many of us, though, a lack of adequate pressure relief at night can lead to discomfort in these sensitive areas. Furthermore, nighttime pain and discomfort are directly correlated with poorer sleep quality8.
Conversely, another study shows the direct impact sleeping on a pressure-relieving material like memory foam can have: “a significant reduction of cervical, dorsal, and lumbar pain… Significant shorter sleep onset latency… and slightly better sleep efficiency5.
How to Find a Good Mattress for Pressure Relief
When looking for a mattress with good pressure relief, you’ll want a bed that evenly distributes your body’s weight so that pressure doesn’t build up in these sensitive areas. Often, we think about cushioning as pressure relief, but it also has to do with how well the mattress supports the spine.
The ideal pressure-relieving mattress will keep your spine in one even plane, no matter what position you’re lying in, won’t put added pressure in any one area of your body, and will feel cushioning and comfortable beneath your joints.
The firmness level of the mattress also plays a role in how much pressure relief you’ll experience. If we go back to the example of lying on a wooden floor, this very firm surface has no give, softness, or cushioning to provide pressure relief, and your joints will be aching in no time. It is the same with a mattress that is too firm – it won’t provide the contouring or cushioning needed to relieve sensitive pressure points.
It’s important to note, though, that a mattress’ firmness is subjective, and we all feel beds differently depending on our body type. For example, a person who weighs less than 130 pounds will not sink as far into a mattress as a heavier person and will feel the mattress as firmer than a heavier person would. This means, a lightweight sleeper generally does better with a softer bed. Additionally, petite sleepers are more likely to need pressure relief around their joints since they might be a bit bonier than a heavier person’s.
Most average-weight sleepers do best with a medium-firm mattress9. A medium-firm mattress can still have plenty of pressure relief, especially if it includes a material like memory foam. A firm mattress can still have good pressure relief, depending on its construction, but these beds will work best for heavier individuals.
Sleep position also plays a role in finding a good pressure-relieving mattress, which we will go into more detail on further below.
The Best and Worst Types of Mattresses for Pressure Reduction
- Memory foam – Memory foam is often touted as the most pressure-relieving mattress material. This material has the ability to mold to the body, absorb motion, and evenly distribute body weight.
This foam has a slow recovery time, which means when you press your hand into it, it won’t immediately bounce back into shape. Memory foam’s ability to contour the body and cradle the joints makes it an excellent choice for those with joint pain. The downside to memory foam mattress, though, is that it can run hot with effective cooling measures.
- Latex – Latex is another type of foam mattress and can be divided into natural latex, which is made from rubber trees10, and synthetic latex, which is made from petrochemicals. This temperature-neutral material tends to feel springier and a latex bed is a good choice for those who want to feel more ‘on top of’ the bed rather than ‘in’ it, people who change positions through the night, and hot sleepers.
Interestingly, researchers found11 that latex reduced pressure throughout the body better than other types of mattresses.
- Gel-infused foam – If memory foam sounds like the perfect fit for you, but you tend to sleep hot, gel-infused foam might be your perfect mattress material. These mattresses include memory foam that is infused with gel microbeads. These tiny gel beads help keep the bed cool but still provide the same pressure relief and sinking sensation of a traditional memory foam bed.
- Hybrid mattresses – Hybrid mattresses combine two or more types of materials in their construction: a supportive layer of innerspring coils with foam layers on top. This foam could either be memory foam, latex, or some combination of these materials.
The benefit of hybrid beds is that they provide the spinal support of a traditional innerspring bed and the pressure relief of a foam bed. These are a great option for heavyweight sleepers, hot sleepers, and combination sleepers.
What to Look for Based on Your Sleep Position
- Side Sleepers – Out of all the sleep positions, side sleepers will need the most pressure relief. When you lie down on your side, your shoulder and hip press directly into the mattress. In this case, most side sleepers should opt for a softer, more cushioning mattress that will allow the shoulder and hip to sink in enough for pressure relief while still keeping the body well-supported. Memory foam, gel-infused foam, and hybrid beds are great choices.
- Back Sleepers – When lying in this position, the spine should be in good alignment. If you find that your lower back arches up off the mattress, your bed may be too firm. Likewise, if you find you’re waking up with back pain and it is hard to get out of bed, your mattress may be too soft. Back sleepers need a balanced mattress.
Medium-firm mattresses with zoned support can provide excellent pressure relief to back sleepers. Zoned support means the bed is firmer in heavier areas that need extra support and softer in lighter areas.
- Stomach Sleepers – Stomach sleeping doesn’t tend to affect pressure points like side and back sleeping, but it can lead to improper spinal alignment and lower back pain if you’re not using the right mattress. In this position, the midsection will sink into the bed, so stomach sleepers need a firmer mattress that can properly support the hips and stomach. Firmer latex beds, beds with zoned support, or hybrid beds are good options here.
- Combination Sleepers – Combination sleepers move between two or more sleep positions throughout the night, and these people tend to do best on a medium-firm mattress because these beds work well for most positions. Even though memory foam is excellent at relieving pressure, combination sleepers would do better to choose latex or hybrid beds, which have a bit more bounce to make it easier to move around on the bed.
Health Benefits of Pressure Relief
One of the primary benefits of pressure relief is improved sleep12 through better comfort, which can boost your physical and mental health. Additionally, good pressure relief can help prevent certain health conditions linked to sustained pressure buildup.
Pressure points like the heels, ankles, tailbone, hips, shoulders, buttocks, and the backs of the knees tend to be more sensitive to poor circulation1. A mattress that distributes the body’s weight evenly helps improve circulation to these areas, which not only feels better but helps prevent pressure ulcers and bedsores from forming4. Other pressure-related conditions can include numbness, tingling, weak or sore-feeling muscles, veins that bulge, swelling, and overall poor circulation13.
Even if your mattress does not go so far as to impact your circulation, a mattress with poor pressure relief can easily cause joint and muscle pain, simply by being too firm. If you’re waking up with more aches and pains than when you went to bed, there’s a good chance your mattress is not providing the pressure your relief your body needs. In that case, make sure to look for the best mattress for pressure relief, in order to solve this problem in the future.
Additional Pressure-Relieving Features and Accessories
- Pillows – It isn’t just mattresses that can provide important pressure relief while you’re sleeping. The type of pillow you use can also alleviate pressure in your neck, shoulders, and head while helping to keep your spine in alignment.
If you’re looking for a great pillow for side sleepers, you’ll want a pillow with a higher loft to keep the neck and head supported and properly aligned with the rest of your spine. A medium-loft pillow should work best for back sleepers, and a low-loft pillow will work best for stomach sleepers. Just remember, you want a pillow that helps keep your spine straight in your preferred sleep position. It shouldn’t be so firm that it creates pressure on your neck or head, and it shouldn’t be so soft that your head doesn’t feel supported.
- Mattress toppers – Mattress toppers can be especially helpful for a mattress that’s too firm, especially if you’re not currently able to buy a new bed. We recommend looking for mattress toppers made of memory foam or latex for optimal pressure relief.
- Adjustable base – An adjustable base can do wonders for relieving pressure. Adjustable bed frames can be moved into different positions, including one called the “zero gravity sleep position.” This position allows the body’s weight to be so evenly distributed it can feel like you’re floating in space, removing any pressure from sensitive areas like the lower back, hips, and shoulders. Many memory foam mattresses work on adjustable bed frames but be sure to make sure your mattress is adjustable base compatible. For more information, check out our list of best adjustable bed frames.
A mattress with good pressure relief is about more than being comfortable at night; it’s also about preventing health issues like poor circulation, bedsores, numbness, swelling, and sore muscles and joints.
While some people need to focus on pressure relief more than others – for example, those with circulation issues, athletes, or people with painful joints – pressure relief is something that we all need to keep in mind. The right mattress will keep your spine aligned, evenly distribute your weight, cushion your joints, and most importantly, leave you feeling comfortable and rested in the morning.
Natalie is a content writer for Sleep Advisor with a deep passion for all things health and a fascination with the mysterious activity that is sleep. Outside of writing about sleep, she is a bestselling author, improviser, and creative writing teacher based out of Austin.
- “Pressure Point”. Merriam-Webster Dictionary. Webpage accessed June 26, 2024.
- “Acupressure for Pain and Headaches”. Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. Last modified March 1, 2024.
- “Bedsores (pressure ulcers)”. Mayo Clinic. Last modified May 13, 2024.
- “Common areas where pressure injuries develop”. Alberta Health. Last modified November 15, 2021.
- Ancuelle, Victor., Zamudio, Rodrigo., et al. “Effects of an adapted mattress in musculoskeletal pain and sleep quality in institutionalized elders”. National Library of Medicine. 2015.
- Bolton, Roman., Hulshof, Hidde., et. al. “Effects of mattress support on sleeping position and low-back pain”. Journal of Neuroinflammation. 2022.
- “Bedsores”. Johns Hopkins Medicine. Webpage accessed June 26, 2024.
- Haack, Monika., Simpson, Norah., et al. “Sleep deficiency and chronic pain: potential underlying mechanisms and clinical implications”. National Library of Medicine. 2020.
- Caggiari, Gianfilippo., Talesa, Giuseppe Rocco., et al. “What type of mattress should be chosen to avoid back pain and improve sleep quality?” National Library of Medicine. 2021.
- “Rubber”. Britannica. Webpage accessed June 27, 2024.
- Low, Fan-Zhe., Chua, Matthew Chin-Heng., et al. “Effects of Mattress Material on Body Pressure Profiles in Different Sleeping Postures”. National Library of Medicine. 2017.
- “Good Sleep for Good Health”. National Institutes of Health. Webpage accessed June 27, 2024.
- “Poor Circulation”. Cleveland Clinic. Last modified September 27, 2021.