Is Sleeping on an Air Mattress Bad for Your Back?

Yes, yes, and no—it all depends on you and the mattress.

By Dr. Sheryl Grassie

Most answers, when it comes to questions about what the right type of mattress, are going to start with, “It depends.” Just like with other preferences in our lives—our choice of profession, what we eat, where we live, what we find pleasing when it comes to sleep—the type of mattress, our sleep position, and the temperature is determined by individual preference.

Young lady waking up with back pain

Where Did the Notion that Air Mattresses Are Bad for Your Back Come From?

Back pain is commonplace as part of a modern lifestyle. It can stem from not enough exercise, prolonged periods of sitting, or a bad mattress. I have a friend who went through years of back pain, cortisone shots, and was scheduled for surgery. She bought a new bed as a last resort before having the operation and made an unprecedented full recovery: pain free for years now, all due to the right mattress.

Conversely, sleeping on the wrong mattress can cause pain, especially back pain. Early air mattresses were a simple affair. They consisted of a vinyl exterior that was inflated with air, and many people found they either caused or exacerbated back pain. They were not very supportive, not good for spinal alignment, and could lead to back pain and stiffness. They offered no deep contouring for the body like what you can now get with pocketed coils or memory foam. Even current bloggers, who report successful sleep trials on an air mattress, may still caution about back pain.

Some of the concerns over back pain, however, may be a hangover from times gone by. Current air mattresses are nothing like they used to be. They were originally designed as short-term or temporary beds. They were used as guest beds, for camping, or as an interim bed when moving. With new technology, you can now purchase a high-quality air mattresses or air bed that is a viable long-term option.

When it comes to sleeping on an air mattress, as a more permanent mattress, some people love it and find it offers just the right support, others are challenged to enjoy a good night’s sleep.

Back pain, however, is no longer ascribed to an air mattress over any other mattress that just doesn’t provide the support you need. When a mattress is too soft or too firm it can encourage poor sleeping posture and cause muscle tension that can lead to back pain. Although contemporary air mattresses can be adjusted, they don’t generally have the quite the same flexibility as other mattresses. It is, however, safe to say they are not bad for your back.

Is Sleeping on an Inflatable Mattress Right for You?

Air is a very different animal than other mattress materials, and there are numerous considerations if it is going to work for you. Air mattresses have some very definite pros and cons.

Pros

  • Versatility: Air mattresses are lightweight, compactable, and highly portable. They can easily be moved by one person, taken from room to room, or stored for occasional use.
  • Low cost: Air mattresses start as low as $50 and go up to around $450. Overall, they have a considerably lower price-point than other types of mattresses.
  • Great if you like a firm mattress: At one point in time, a firm bed was the prescription for a bad back. Now the conventional wisdom is that a med-firm mattress is better. However, if you enjoy a firm mattress, an inflatable version can really fit the bill.
  • Works well for young sleepers: Children and young adults tend to be more flexible and can get by with less support. They sleep well, on air mattresses of all kinds.

Cons

  • Motion transfer: One major complaint about air mattresses is that they transfer motion more than other types of mattresses. The air forms a solid block, and when there is an impact in one area, it transfers across the entire bed. This can make for a rocky experience when sleeping with another person.
  • Temperature control: The air in the mattress is not temperature neutral. It tends to take on the outside temperature and can result in a hot or cold bed that may be uncomfortable to sleep on. One blogger who experimented with sleeping with an air mattress on the floor, described being freezing in cold weather even with blankets piled high.
  • Not good for certain conditions: Certain physical conditions do not work well with an air mattress. They are not considered good for pregnancy. They are not practical if you are heavy set or obese. And lastly, some experts are still cautioning that if you already have a back problem, you should check with your doctor before moving to an air mattress.
  • Requires maintenance: When sleeping on an inflatable bed, you run the risk of the mattress deflating. Every air mattress loses air over time and requires additional air to be added. Air mattresses are also prone to leaks that need patching. Most modern air beds come with pumps and repair kits. Some of the pumps can be quite noisy, while others are quiet. Called secondary pumps, they detect pressure and automatically turn on to keep the bed fully inflated.

Things That Can Help

If you like the idea of an air mattress, there are some things you can do to increase the chances that it will be a good fit for you.

  • Keep the mattress Inflated: Get on a regular schedule with inflating the mattress if it needs to be done manually or get one with a good pump. I visited that same friend that was due for surgery, and slept on an air bed in her guestroom. The pump was very noisy, so I turned it off during the night, only to wake up sometime later wrapped around the metal bed frame, the mattress had fully deflated. That did give me back pain, but the point is, figure out a good way to ensure the mattress will stay inflated.
  • Use a mattress topper: A mattress topper can solve numerous problems with an air bed. It can isolate and decrease motion transfer, it can help with temperature regulation, and it can add cushioning for better support. Adding a topper can keep the overall cost of the bed still well below that of other mattresses and give a similar level of comfort.
  • Add a frame and headboard: One suggestion for making an air mattress more stable and supportive is to invest in a good frame and headboard. If the mattress is held in place there is less motion, and the frame can act as part of the support that you receive from the bed.
  • Buy a good air mattress: It probably goes without saying that you are likely to be happier with a good quality mattress. There are a number of excellent ones on the market.

Summary

Is sleeping on an air mattress bad for your back? Air mattresses have joined the ranks of supportive long-term beds that have advantages like low cost and portability, as well as issues like air loss and maintenance.  Sleeping on air mattress can be very supportive and not a problem for your back, but if you have an existing back problem, it wouldn’t hurt to get some expert advice on what is best for you.


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