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Ask Dr. Spight: Can I Try a Waterbed for Back Pain?

If you are considering a waterbed for back pain, read Dr. Spight’s tips before you buy.

Waterbeds first made an appearance on the medical scene in 1833, when Scottish physician Neil Arnott devised a water-filled rubber bed to prevent bedsores. But Arnott’s unusual mattress didn’t become mainstream until the 1960s, when it was reintroduced in the United States. Today, waterbeds have fallen out of favor again; they are heavy and require more maintenance than traditional mattresses. Besides, no one wants to face the prospect of a leaking waterbed. But do waterbeds offer a medical benefit that deserves a second look? Could trying a waterbed for back pain deliver a better night’s rest for patients with chronic pain? Physical medicine and rehabilitation physician Dr. David Spight sub-specializes in spine pain; he hears this question regularly. He shares his expertise with helping patients make the best bed choice, as well as other tips for managing back pain.

Research studying use of a waterbed for back pain

“‘Should I try a waterbed for back pain?’ I get this question a lot,” says Dr. Spight. “My answer is guided by the medical research. There are not any studies I am aware of that compare waterbeds to traditional mattresses. Among the few studies that have been done, none find any statistically significant advantage of one bed type over another.”

Some patients ask Dr. Spight about beds that have been endorsed by a medical society. “In the absence of definitive research, I don’t find endorsements very compelling,” says Dr. Spight. “What are endorsements? They are usually paid opinions. That’s why, when it comes to your back and your comfort level, you are the person in the best position to decide what works for you.”

The bottom line? “The right bed for you is the one that makes you comfortable,” states Dr. Spight. “There’s nothing wrong with trying a waterbed for back pain. There’s nothing wrong with trying a soft or firm mattress either. In fact, my advice is to test different kinds of beds to find the one that feels best to you.

“I do tell patients about my own experience during over 30 years of spine practice,” he continues. “I’ve observed that most patients with back pain do better sleeping on a firm surface than on a soft one. However, a firm surface doesn’t work for everyone. Some people do better on a softer mattress. Others may find that a waterbed is the most comfortable choice. You are the expert when it comes to choosing the bed that works best for you.”

The best spine position during sleep

“I can’t tell patients which bed will be most comfortable for them, but I can educate them about posture and body mechanics during sleep,” explains Dr. Spight. “Whether or not you use a waterbed for back pain, I do recommend maintaining a neutral spine during sleep, if possible.

A neutral spine is a flat spine that maintains the natural curves of the spine during sleep. “Our spine has natural C-shaped curves,” explains Dr. Spight. “We have a primary rounded thoracic curve that reflects our curled position in the womb. And we have secondary curves at the neck and lower back. Those curves developed to allow us to walk upright against gravity and see where we’re going. If you can sleep on your back in a supported position that maintains those natural curves, that’s great. But it’s admittedly not easy to do. Most of us start out in one sleeping position and wake up in another.”

Dr. Spight does have suggestions to make it easier to maintain a neutral spine during sleep. “Tucking a pillow beneath your knees can help maintain the natural curvature of the spine,” he says. “Using a cervical pillow under your neck can also help you maintain a position on your back when you sleep.”

Better options than a waterbed for back pain

“Although maintaining a neutral spine position as you sleep is an option for pain relief, I want to emphasize that there’s no right or wrong way to sleep,” Dr. Spight points out. “In fact, what you do during the day is more important than your position when you sleep. The most important factors in reducing back pain are your daytime posture and body mechanics, and maintaining good muscle balance.”

“I am always here to advise patients and discuss treatments for back pain, but I want people to know that making activity a daily habit is just as important,” he advises. “When people are aware of body mechanics and are faithful to an exercise program to keep their muscles balanced, they can reduce back pain. It’s possible to maintain strength and flexibility over time. Some people even become more flexible in their later years. But that part of the corrective process is about what you choose to do to help yourself.”

Limit bed rest for back pain

“And remember, whether you sleep on a mattress or a waterbed for back pain, too much time in bed is not a good thing,” cautions Dr. Spight. “Our bodies aren’t designed to be stationery. We have legs because we are meant to be mobile. Research has shown decisively that our heart, lungs, cholesterol, and other functions improve with regular sustained aerobic activity. That activity could be walking, swimming, biking, or using an elliptical machine for 30 to 45 minutes a day. Or you could work out with one of our performance specialists at the HealthEast Sports Center. Motion is lotion for your joints. When we move, we help our body deliver nutrients to our joints to keep them healthy. So find the bed that’s comfortable for you, but don’t forget to focus on daily aerobic activity. It’s good for your entire skeletal system, including your spine.” 

Summit Orthopedics offers comprehensive spine expertise

Our back specialists diagnose spine problems and design custom treatment plans built on a conservative, nonsurgical approach. Most patients find relief through treatments including guided injections, specialized physical therapy, biofeedback, exercise, activity modification, and medication. When conservative care does not relieve symptoms, our highly skilled surgeons offer proven, evidence-based surgical options. Together with you, we will determine the right course of action.

Start your journey to a healthy spine. Find your spine expert, request an appointment online, or call us at (651) 968-5201 to schedule a spine consultation.

Summit has convenient locations across the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area, serving Minnesota and western Wisconsin. We have state-of-the-art centers for comprehensive orthopedic care in Eagan, MNPlymouth, MN, Vadnais Heights, MN, and Woodbury, MN, as well as additional community clinics throughout the metro and southern Minnesota. 

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