17/01/2017 12:02 GMT | Updated 18/01/2018 05:12 GMT

A Firm Mattress May Not Be The Answer For Your Bad Back

JGI/Tom Grill

If Sandi Toksvig and Alan Davies found themselves with nothing to talk about one week, they could fill a whole episode of QI discussing mattresses. Admittedly it would not be a ratings-winner and they are currently on series N rather than M, but there are numerous myths and misconceptions about the mattress market.

For example, how many springs would you expect to find in a 1000 pocket spring single mattress? It's certainly not 1000 (it's more like half that as the number relates to how many you'd fit on a much bigger mattress).

One of the most enduring myths is that people with a bad back should have a very firm bed. I'm not a chiropractor but after starting to read mattress guides online I realised pretty quickly that it's not that simple.

According to both the British Chiropractic Association and the Sleep Council, what you actually need is a 'supportive' bed. For some people, that will be a firm bed but for other people it will actually be quite a soft bed.

The key to getting a mattress that will look after your back is finding one that creates a nice straight spine when you are lying on your side. With a firm mattress, an 8 stone jockey will not sink into the bed enough so the spine will end up curvy (resembling a frowny face was how one guide described it). Similarly, an 18 stone wrestler will be swallowed up by a soft mattress and would need something firmer to help keep their spine straight.

You can achieve that straight spine with a memory foam, pocket sprung or latex mattress. Several bed comparison websites conclude that a good quality memory foam or latex mattress has the potential to offer superior support, although you can certainly look after your back with a decent pocket sprung mattress.

The firm mattress myth is confused further because some manufacturers offer a mattress which they describe as 'orthopedic'. It sounds kind of scientific and medical, much like those shampoo adverts with diagrams of hair strands. However, what it usually means in the mattress market is that it is extra firm but there's no blanket rule (pun intended) that it will be the best option for your back.

And here's another weird quirk of the mattress market - no-one has ever decided what 'firm' or 'soft' actually means. One company's 'soft' could be the same as another company's 'medium' mattress, in much the same way that a medium t-shirt from one shop might be a large t-shirt in another.

That's terribly confusing for the mattress buyer, particularly if you buy something online. Your options are either to buy from a bed shop where they may not stock that award-winning mattress which you've read about, or to buy online and hope that it is the right level of firmness for you. Some higher end mattresses offer a free return after a month or two of sleeping but I'm rather too British and would be reluctant to return it unless it had completely fallen apart.

The best advice I've found online after many (many) hours of reading is to put your hand flat underneath your back whilst lying on the bed. If there's no gap, it's too soft. If there's a huge gap then the bed is too hard for you.

Personally, I'd like to see bed companies offering something more useful, such as a rating which explains that 'this bed is ideal for people who weigh 10-12 stone' if such a thing is achievable. Until then, we'll have to settle for awkward trips to the bed shop where we attempt to work out if our spine is straight.

This blog originally appeared in The Best Mattresses Guide