This post is by staff writer April Dykman.

I’ve dropped a rather obscene amount of money on bodywork in the last few years. I’ve had an evolving team of chiropractors, massage therapists, and acupuncturists. I’ve bought books on physical therapy exercises. Some things have worked, others have not. In the end, the pain always comes back.

I have chronic shoulder pain. My arms also frequently go numb in the middle of the night. I don’t mean they tingle, I mean sometimes I literally cannot move my arm. I have to use my functioning hand to reposition it and get blood flowing back into the limb. It’s kinda scary.

Two (life-changing?) questions
When my shoulder bothers me enough, I usually get a massage to alleviate the pain. It’s a temporary fix — I know a 60-minute massage can’t cure a chronic problem that’s probably caused by structure and daily habits. But recently a new (to me) massage therapist asked me two questions that no one else had asked. First, she asked if I grind my teeth at night. Yes, I have in the past, and I have a TMJ (temporomandibular joint) disorder. She firmly suggested that I started wearing my night guard consistently, and in the past five days the pain has gone from a constant ache to a mild annoyance.

The second question she asked: “How old is your mattress?” Oh, man. So old, I didn’t want to tell her. The mattress my husband and I sleep on for (ideally) eight hours every night is 11 years old. I know it’s not in good shape. I just never thought it would make that much of a difference, but then, I never would have guessed that a night guard would, either. “You should think about replacing it,” she said. “Even a cheap new mattress is better than a worn-out one. One of my clients bought a $600 mattress from Costco and her back pain went away.”

The research begins
I know you’re probably thinking that a new mattress should have been an obvious solution. But after so many years of varying diagnoses, x-rays showing scoliosis (one chiropractor called it “severe,” another disagreed) and other spinal issues, I thought the pain was  a given, something I’d have to learn to manage. I also didn’t realize just how old our mattress was.

I started my mattress search in my usual way, by reading mattress-buying guides like the one J.D. wrote a few years ago. (Interesting tip: According to Consumer Reports, you’ll know in 15 minutes if a mattress will be comfortable: “Panelists who took beds home for a month-long trial rarely changed the opinion they formed after the first night. On the whole, their opinions were the same as those of our in-store testers.”)

But I also had some other concerns, such as off-gassing. Most mattresses and box springs are coated in a mixture of fire-retardant chemicals, formaldehyde, glues, stains, and coatings, all of which release gasses into the air. There are a lot of parenting sites that recommend organic mattresses for baby’s crib, but the hard, scientific data is nonexistent or vague in most of those articles. Here’s what I was able to find:

  • The most widely used flame retardant, PBDEs (polybrominated diphenyl ethers), are a chemical of concern to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). According to their site, the “EPA is concerned that certain PBDE congeners are persistent, bioaccumulative, and toxic to both humans and the environment. The critical endpoint of concern for human health is neurobehavioral effects.” As soon as the EPA bans one kind of PBDE, another is created to replace it.
  • Environmental Health News reported that because of widespread use in the U.S., Americans have PBDE levels in their bodies 20 times higher than Europeans. “Californians are the highest exposed,” says the article, “likely because manufacturers added PBDEs to polyurethane furniture cushions to meet the state’s stringent flammability rules.”
  • In a University of California at Berkeley study, of 223 pregnant women studied, more than 97% had PBDEs in their blood, and each 10-fold increase in a woman’s blood was linked to a 30% decrease in her odds of getting pregnant.
  • A Uppsala University study conducted 10 years ago found that two kinds of PBDEs led to neurological problems affecting learning and memory in lab mice. The lead scientist, Per Eriksson, also has shown that PBDEs cause neurological damage in lab animals at exposure levels just slightly higher than those found in humans.

For a more in-depth look at PBDEs, this Slate article outlines the studies and recent developments. I’m still not sure how much of a difference a mattress makes — is the amount of toxic gas negligible compared to, say, your laptop or carpeting? If that study exists, I couldn’t find it. In the end, you have to weigh the studies with the unknowns and decide if paying extra for an organic mattress is right for you. (Also note that if your mattress is a few years old, it’s possible that it’s finished off-gassing.)

My husband and I decided to go with organic, and we made some adjustments to the budget to cover it. After all, I’d spent much more during the past few years on chiropractic appointments — even an organic mattress looked downright cheap in comparison!

Shopping for a mattress
We’ve covered mattress shopping at GRS here and here, and those two articles have great advice for getting a good deal on a comfortable mattress. But if you’re interested in an organic mattress, the following are a few extra pointers to keep in mind:

  • Manufacturers and retailers often use words like “natural,” that don’t necessarily mean anything. For example, sometimes synthetic latex is blended with natural latex, and the end-product is advertised as “natural.” Other labels to question: chemical-free (nothing is actually chemical-free, everything is made up of chemicals), nontoxic (again, nothing is truly nontoxic, even water is toxic if you drink too much), and green (there are no standards for using the word).
  • While you’re at it, question the word “organic,” too. Some mattresses are sold as organic, when in reality the cotton is organic and the latex is synthetic. If you’re going to spend the extra cash on an organic mattress, make sure it’s made from wool (a natural fire retardant), organic cotton, and 100% natural, sustainably sourced latex.
  • If possible, buy direct from the manufacturer. Cutting out the retailer is one way to mitigate the higher cost of organic.
  • Always try before you buy. If you shop online, where organic mattresses and good deals are often easier to find, be sure to try out the mattress in a store first, or make sure that the return policy allows you to send it back. Usually there’s a restocking fee. Be sure you know the store’s policy and will be okay with the terms if the mattress doesn’t work for you.

We opted to buy our mattress from a Texas manufacturer. I found some great deals for organic mattresses online, but I liked that this was a local, 20-year-old business that had great reviews from customers. If we aren’t happy with our mattress, they’ll take it back and customize it based on our feedback, at no additional cost. “We’re in it together,” said the owner, who sold us the mattress. Additionally, if I get a note from a doctor about my back issues, the mattress store will refund us the sales tax we paid.

Next Thursday our new mattress will be delivered, and the old one will go to that big mattress store in the sky. I won’t be able to tell you with any certainty whether organic was worth the extra expense or not, but I have a feeling I’m going to owe that massage therapist a fruit basket or something.

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