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Pressure Relief or Support?

Sleeping on a cloud

After a fruitless day of mattress hunting, you’re reading mattress web sites. Just as salespeople promised in store after store, you’re finding claims that a particular mattress will provide perfect pressure relief and perfect support. Or even that one mattress will be perfect for everyone.

The truth is that pressure relief and support are opposing goals.

You can sleep without pressure, if you can afford a rocket. In outer space, you’d sleep with your body experiencing no pressure at all. But you’d also be feeling no support.

What’s the perfect support material? Probably the pavement you were pounding this afternoon. Although people can sleep on concrete (and sadly, some do), you’d soon develop pressure points because as areas of your body press down on an unyielding surface, capillary circulation shuts down. In short, you’d get very sore, very fast.

In a mattress, you can have some of both but not all of either. To varying degrees, everyone needs some softness at or near the surface for pressure relief and firmer layers underneath to provide stability for the back. Depending on the manufacturer, there are a variety of ways to achieve the balance.

A popular sales tool in some showrooms is called pressure mapping. Sophisticated-looking equipment uses sensors to measure the pressure between a person’s body and the mattress surface. The customer is shown a graphic body “map” that shows red for areas with more pressure, and blue for less.

Companies selling memory foam mattresses will often say that the best mattress is whatever one shows the most blue in pressure maps. However, even if the machines are smart enough to read all the pressure points on your body, a few questions illustrate their limits:

What happens when you roll to your back or side? Do the pressure points change?
What if you gain or lose weight? Or your circulation changes with the years?
What if you have pain that is not related to external pressure, but to a nerve irritation from a back problem or old injury?
Pressure mapping is a fantastic selling tool because the gizmo just directs you to a specific mattress. Yet it’s sad to think that our culture has encouraged such a disconnect between what our bodies are feeling and what a machine will recommend. Buying a mattress shouldn’t be rocket science, and you have all the knowledge you need.

Do some homework about mattress designs and materials. Respect your body’s signals and your own intuition as you look for the right combination of pressure relief (a soft-enough surface to cushion your joints) with support (a stable center and base to stabilize your spine). Better sleep beckons those who can trust their own bodies to tell them, “This mattress is right for me.”

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