The Joy of a Latex Mattress for an Aching Back


Recently we both started experiencing some significant back pain, bad enough that we’d wake up with it every morning. We tried managing the pain with ibuprofen, Salonpas, and Icy Hot. And we went through the usual analysis in our heads: Are we dealing with compression? Another back problem? An issue related to prior surgery? After many months of torment, the Aha! moment was anti-climactic: our mattress was killing our backs.

Mattress Shopping Fun, or Lack Of

If there’s one shopping experience that’s significantly painful, and intentionally made so by the manufacturers and retailers, it’s looking for a new mattress. Just like with carpet, the big-S manufacturers (Sealy, Simmons, Serta, Spring-Air, Stearns & Foster) do not sell the same mattress model to more than one retailer. They do this specifically to prevent the end consumer from doing any sort of legitimate comparison test, and moreover it allows the mattress retailers to set their own completely arbitrary price. They have quite a racket going. It’s so difficult that even Consumer Reports basically refuses to compare and rate mattresses.

Choices in Mattress Materials

Mattresses are manufactured with basically a few options.

Innerspring Mattresses

The most common mattresses sold are innerspring mattresses. If you were to rip open a common mattress purchased at a big-box store, you’d probably be shocked by what you’re paying big bucks for. It has a bunch of rather uncomfortable springs, egg crate foam, maybe some other fillers, and a lot of expensive air. No wonder the stores never show a cross section of what they’re selling you. The difference between a $300 spring mattress and a $1,000 spring mattress will be based upon the number of coils, whether they are wrapped in some thin fabric, how pretty the outer cover is (which gets covered up by your sheets anyways), and how magical and extensive the marketing budget was to sell it to you. None of our LP friends we have polled have found innerspring mattreses to be comfortable for our bodies or provide adequate support for our backs (whether one might be experiencing kyphosis, lordosis, scoliosis, or just a sore back).

Memory Foam Mattresses

Memory foam mattresses are very popular right now and are filled with polyurethane (synthetic) memory foam. Some of the higher-end innerspring mattresses will include a layer of memory foam. Unfortunately usually this layer is the very top layer and the manufacturer will use a very thin/cheap layer which wears out and sags, pretty much negating the added value of the memory foam and possibly decreasing your comfort level. Many of our LP and AH friends rave about their memory foam mattresses. It helps that they are very affordable and also available in toppers for innerspring mattresses.

Specialty Mattresses

High-End (special) mattresses are associated with a huge advertising budget and similar prices. Some of these brands include the Sleep Number Bed and Tempurpedic. Many people are extremely happy with these beds (including a family member who raves about their Tempurpedic), but we’ve researched them and based upon trying them in the store, we just don’t get the appeal for the price. Dwarf Dad has slept on a Sleep Number Bed in a hotel and it felt like a big  AeroBed or something you’d sleep on during a sleepover at a friend’s house. And it sounded like one too since when you increase/decrease your Sleep Number, you are adding or removing air from the mattress. The Tempurpedic mattresses, especially the high-end ones, seem nice to lay in but they are massively expensive and can range as high as $6,000.

Latex Mattresses

Latex Mattresses have been used since the 1920′s but fell out of favor due to the low cost of innerspring mattresess. The word Latex is commonly used to refer to natural latex rubber, which can be produced by extracting the sap from the rubber tree (Dwarf Dad has witnessed this during a tour in Malaysia). It also can be made synthetically which is how latex is commonly made for gloves, condoms, balloons, and other uses.

Latex is poured into mattresesses using one of two techniques: Dunlop and Talalay.  The Dunlop process creates a more dense, heavier product. A Talalay mattress is created by pouring less latex into a mold which is then sealed into a vacuum chamber where all air is removed, then it’s flash frozen and baked.  A good analogy we’ve seen is that Talalay is like angel food cake while Dunlop is like pound cake. You can definitely feel the difference by laying on both types of mattresses. Many of the online gurus will recommend a dunlop core with a talalay upper comfort layer, but we’ve been happy with a pure Talalay core.

Latex Mattress Density

When you purchase a Latex Mattress, you will be given a choice of density (firmness) for your mattress. Latex mattresses come in a range of firmness (called ILD or Indentation Load Deflection, which is the standard numbering system for rating firmness of foam) ranging from 14 (Super Plush/Soft) to 44 (Super Firm/Hard). Latex International’s Talalay cores come in 7 separate ILD’s. So we suggest you try laying on them in the store for as long as possible (at least 5 minutes) to get a true feeling for their comfort level.

Latex Mattresses and Latex Allergies

There is some concern over the choice of Latex for mattresses due to latex allergies. From what we’ve read, there have been only a few allergic reactions to latex throughout history and this is usually where a pure latex product made with a “cold-dipped” method  is applied directly to the skin such as with surgical gloves. With a latex mattress, you’re never sleeping directly on the mattress as it will always be covered with the mattress cover, along with your sheets, blankets, etc. Moreover, latex mattresses go through a five-stage washing process at the factory which should remove any proteins that can cause an allergic reaction. We have not been able to find a single report of an allergic reaction to latex mattresses or pillows online.

The Best Mattress for a Bad Back

After visiting one too many mattress stores (along with Macy’s and other local furniture retailers), we came to a shared conclusion: innerspring mattresses are not good for sensitive backs or backs needing firm support. It’s simple enough to say that the springs just hurt the back and there’s no way around having painful pressure points from the springs, no matter how expensive a cover you put on the mattress. Eventually the upper layer will wear down and you’ll be bearing down with your shoulder blade right on top of a spring all night long. Also, it doesn’t seem to help LP’s with lordosis or scoliosis.

By going back and forth laying on spring and non-spring mattresses, it was obvious that a solid mattress would be a much better choice. So the decision had to come down to memory foam or latex. Tempurpedic was out due to the exorbitant cost, so we were left looking at Tempurpedic knock-offs and other similar options. Memory Foam does not have to be expensive! You can buy a highly-rated LUCID by LinenSpa 10″ Memory Foam Mattress on Amazon with a 20-Year Warranty for less than $300. This makes you wonder why Tempurpedic can cost 10 times as much, right? Costco also has some memory foam alternatives, such as the Sleep Science Latex Comfort. But the LUCID by LinenSpa is much cheaper and seems to be better reviewed.

We decided to go with latex due to a subtle feel difference: latex will immediately provide a nice, cushiony feeling, whereas memory foam needs time to ”warm up’ and soften to mold around your body. We’ve also read about people waking up in the middle of the night and being boxed into their body cavity by a memory foam mattress that they had to crawl out of to go pee. Not too fun for LP’s with who have short limbs! Latex will immediately provide that give and also spring back when you get out. There are also a few other reasons we went with latex, which are important:

  • Latex is hypoallergenic,  will not harbor dust mites and is naturally resistant to mold and mildew. This is very important for our family which suffers with many types of allergies.
  • Latex is pierced with holes which allows for the material to breathe. Memory Foam is associated with becoming very hot overnight (which is why the big retailers are coming out with gel-infused memory foam) and latex traditionally does not have this problem.
  • A natural latex mattress (especially made with the Talalay process) can be flipped (and is light enough to do so, even for two dwarf parents) to help even out the wear. Many of the modern mattresses are one-sided and not able to be flipped, so all the wear is on one side. And the memory foam mattresses are so big and unwieldy, there’s no possible way an achon and pseudo will be flipping that mattress!
  • Latex generally prevents motion transfer (as can be seen in the Tempurpedic commercial with the wife walking on the bed and not spilling the glass of wine).
  • A latex mattress should last 20-30 years!
  • Sleeping on the latex mattress (and even just laying on it) just feels darn good. Try one out , and we think you’ll agree. Try going back and forth between an innerspring mattress and a latex mattress in the store, then see if you want to buy the innerspring one!
  • You can get a 100% latex mattress core that is only 6 inches high, and that is now the height of our mattress. This is obviously very useful for short people to get in and out of the bed.

Latex Mattress Shopping

There is one difficulty with shopping for a latex mattress, and that’s dealing with the local retailers. Due to their relatively higher price point (we paid $1,300 for a 6″ Talalay queen core wrapped in bamboo), your local Mattress Discounters, Sleep Train, or other store will not flood their showroom floor with latex. When we originally started shopping, we almost purchased a Vera Wang latex mattress at Sleep Train until we did some research and found out it was only partially latex. Don’t be surprised if the retailer is not fully honest or forthcoming with you regarding this point: the salesperson will tell you it’s a latex mattress, and the sign will say latex mattress, but most likely it’s an innerspring mattress with a couple inches of latex on top, and then some cheap memory foam on top of the latex. We eventually found message boards where the owners of the Vera Wang mattress were fuming at how their high-priced mattress wore out early. To add insult to injury, Sleep Train no longer carries the partial-latex mattresses.

Based upon our research, we decided it made sense to get a mattress with 100% latex. After all, why would you want to taint your nice solid core of latex with memory foam, springs, or other fillers? But good luck finding many options for a solid latex mattress. For example, the most expensive latex mattress online at Macy’s (iComfort by Serta), which lists for $9,000, is made of the following comfort layers:  Gel Memory  Foam, Gel Memory Foam, Gel Energy Latex Foam, and Memory Foam (this doesn’t include the base!). A very expensive Aireloom mattress has memory foam, memory foam, latex, latex, memory foam, memory foam foam, and then springs.

One resource we found helpful in our search is The Mattress Underground. In addition to their helpful articles, they have a message board where you can find local retailers that sell latex mattresses. In our case, we ended up with a mom-and-pop shop that has been in business for over 50 years. Their product is very simple: they order a 6″ latex core from Latex International and wrap it in a beautiful bamboo cover. The end product is very simplistic and feels great. Since we have a platform bed, we added a bunky board for support (they sell those too) and we have an amazingly comfortable mattress that is only 6 inches high plus the bunky board. And the best result: no more back pain!

If we haven’t convinced you, consider trying out a Latex Pillow. After all with Amazon you have 30 days to return it if you don’t like it. A Talalay latex pillow will give you a good idea of a how the bed will feel. But for those of you who might have cervical spinal stenosis, you may be better off with an old, flattened pillow. Dwarf Mama tried a latex pillow and felt it inflamed her cervical compression, possibly due to how thick and supportive it was (causing extended flexion of the neck while sleeping), was while her old foam pillow is worn out and flat.

Another option would be to try out a latex mattress topper. This won’t completely give you the feel of a latex bed, but if your old sagging innerspring mattress is hurting your back, a new solid latex topper might provide a world of relief.

Latex Mattress Disadvantages

To be fair, there are some downsides to latex mattresses we should let you know about. First, they are still relatively heavy (especially those made with a Dunlop core) compared to an innerspring mattress. You can definitely find an innerspring mattress cheaper than a solid latex mattress. And lastly, a Talalay latex mattress will have glued-together sections (a queen Talalay mattress has 2 sections). We have never noticed the seam in our latex mattress.

And we can’t forget the most important disadvantage of a latex mattress: ever since we purchased our new mattress, our son won’t stop coming into our bed in the middle of the night! He says his mattress is not soft like ours, so now we have to buy yet another latex mattress for him as well. To his credit, we can’t stand the thought of sleeping on his organic cotton orthopedic mattress, either.

Good luck with mattress shopping! Have you found a great mattress resource? Let us know!


{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Deb May 5, 2013 at 12:49 pm

Dear Dwarf Parents,
Thanks for this mattress review – I have been reading a LOT about non-innerspring beds, but cannot find any place to try them out, except IKEA. They make very firm beds! The internet is full of natural latex and other foam mattress sized blocks and layers and configurations. Although we don’t share the same body size, what ILD of Talalay Latex did you choose for your mattress? And now that you are sleeping on it, are you having less back pain? I am short, light weight, older and have moderate scoliosis. Your observations may be of help to me in choosing a new bed (water-bed is no longer what I need after 30 years of blissful but wavy sleep) .
Peace,
Deb

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dwarfparents.com May 5, 2013 at 8:17 pm

Deb,

Thanks for your comments. Unfortunately our local retailer did not specify ILD in the normal manner it’s quoted for latex, but we went with what’s considered “medium”. We definitely have less back pain after switching to the latex mattress. We’ve seen other comments from people who purchased a “firm” and they were also happy with their choice, especially after switching from a big-box pillow-top ‘cloud’ mattress.

What is the Best Mattress for a Bad Back? For now we’re happy with latex. But if we were shopping again on a tight budget, we’d check out the Ultimate Dreams Latex Mattress.

Good luck!

- Dwarf Parents

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Carol March 13, 2014 at 4:41 pm

Wow we actually tore our innerspring mattress apart to make smaller pieces we could gradually put un the trash :-) Anyhow you described it to a tee; fancy covering, barely 2 inches of cheap feeling memory foam, egg carton foam and hundreds of unbelievably cheap looking springs wrapped in thin material. And yes I was shocked! But then again we were never comfortable on it other than when we laid on it in the store… Many nights I felt like it was beating me up. I tossed and turned relentlessly and woke up sore. We bought a memory foam mattress on EBay for about half the price ($599) free shipping. Couldn’t test it out, but we figured it couldn’t be worse. Only one night on it, but no fighting while trying to sleep. So far it’s heaven. As a side note, they call it “open cell” memory foam. So far didn’t feel like I was overheating either. Happy camper :-)

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