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Many people may be surprised to learn that water beds have been around since the early 1800s. Indeed, the “Hydrostatic Bed,” conceived by Scottish physician Neil Arnott, was designed to stop patients from developing bedsores. Even Mark Twain had something to say about the water bed. In a July 23, 1871 article in The New York Times, Twain wrote, “In the infirmary will be kept one or two water-beds (for invalids whose pains will not allow them to be on a less yielding substance) and half a dozen reclining invalid-chairs on wheels. The water-beds and invalid-chairs at present belonging to the church are always in demand, and never out of service.”

If you were to survey a group of people at random about the type of bed they sleep on, it’s very likely that you’d find some who rave about how well they sleep and others who complain about discomfort and restlessness. You’d probably even find some who purchased a new mattress on one day only to find that they hated it the next after sleeping on it for just one full night.

There is no “ideal” type of bed. Several years ago, a study was performed by Kim Bergholdt, DC, of Denmark’s Funen Back Center. A group of 160 patients with lower back pain were randomly assigned to one of three types of beds: a hard futon, a body-conforming foam mattress, or a water bed. Some patients refused to participate or were unable to finish the study: Some didn’t want to try a water bed, and some who received the hard futon simply couldn’t complete the full month. For those who did complete the study, however, a slight majority preferred the water bed or body-contour mattress compared with the hard futon. Nevertheless, there were some who loved the hard futon and some who hated the softer beds.

Robert Molinari, MD, Associate Professor of Orthopedics at the University of Rochester Medical Center, offered a critique of the study. Molinari remarked, “We really don’t understand why, but some patients respond better to hard mattresses and some to soft ones. There are very few studies lending support to one mattress over another.” Molinari recommends trial and error.

Pros and Cons of Water Beds

Pro: A modern water bed is just as supportive as the traditional coil spring mattress, and the heat of the water may help keep your back more limber.

Pro: A variety of barriers and baffles within a water bed can control whether you have full wave action, partial wave action, or no wave action. Partial or no-wave is often better for your back.

Pro: Some modern water beds have two sections so that you and your partner can adjust the temperature and firms on each side independently for greater comfort.

Con: Water beds can be punctured and thus can leak.

Con: Water beds are more difficult to move. After moving, the bed must be reassembled, refilled with water and then heated to the proper temperature.

Con: Keeping a water bed properly heated can consume a significant amount of electrical energy, increasing cost of ownership.

If you have trouble sleeping or have back pain, consider asking your chiropractor what kind of mattress might be best for you. And remember—it’s always a good idea to “sleep test” a new mattress for a night or two if possible after you choose one from the store. You may be surprised to find a softer or harder mattress or water bed may solve the problem.


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