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Mattress History: What “Orthopedic” Really Means

Feb 06, 2014

Mattress History: What “Orthopedic” Really Means

According to, orthopedics is defined as “the field of medicine concerned with the study and treatment of the musculoskeletal system, particularly the spine, joints, and muscles.” Orthopedic doctors and surgeons help individuals with back pain or skeletal imbalances find relief. For the past few decades, mattress companies have adopted the term “orthopedic” to describe mattresses constructed to provide similar benefits.

History of Orthopedic Mattresses

In the 1950s, medical studies revealed new information about bone and joint function that suggested a better mattress design may be able to help people suffering from back pain. This prompted the development of the first orthopedic mattresses, which were made according to real orthopedic standards. However, once the term “orthopedic” caught on, other mattress manufacturers began to adopt it as a way to capitalize on the growing popularity and increase sales.

In the 1960s, NASA invented what has come to be known as memory foam. It took another three decades for this fabric to start being used by the mattress industry. Since then, memory foam mattresses have been marketed as another “orthopedic” solution for those struggling with chronic pain.

The Orthopedic Claim

Manufacturers claim that orthopedic mattresses provide extra support for the entire body by distributing weight evenly and keeping the back and joints in alignment. Selling points include relief of back pain, pain-free mornings and more refreshing sleep. Mattresses may be constructed in several ways:

  • Coil sprung mattresses feature coils placed close together and connected to spread weight out over the surface of the mattress. This provides firm support for sufferers of severe back pain.
  • Pocket springs use isolated coils to create a mattress meant to provide individual support for each occupant of the bed.
  • Memory foam mattresses are topped with a layer of foam that changes shape to accommodate the contours of the body and bounces back when the bed is empty.

Pocket springs in particular are purported to minimize sleep disturbances for those who sleep with a partner. Memory foam mattresses are commonly used in hospitals and long-term care facilities to provide comfort for bedridden patients.

Is Orthopedic Worth It?

When most people shop for an orthopedic mattress, they’re looking for something firm with good support, but a mattress that’s too firm can put a strain on the body’s pressure points during sleep. That’s why some doctors recommend a softer mattress and why orthopedic mattresses are available in varying degrees of firmness.

However, the term “orthopedic” isn’t regulated by any government or industry organization. Like the nebulous “all natural” claim on packaged foods, the orthopedic label can be used to market any type of mattress. Manufacturers aren’t required to do any testing or provide proof that the mattress reduces pain. The only way to know if a mattress is right for a particular physical condition or sleeping style is to test it. If it seems to provide better comfort, then it’s up to the consumer to decide if the higher price is worth paying.