Selecting the Appropriate Mattress for People with MS

Exceprts taken from
Richard Buhrer, ARNP, MSCN
Seattle, WA

Why do people with MS need special mattresses?

Because of the problems with sensation and movement that are often a component of multiple sclerosis, people with the disease often require special mattresses to keep them safe from developing bed sores and other skin problems. Another problem that people with MS suffer from is heat intolerance. In the presence of a high ambient temperature (temperature of the inside or outside environment), the nerves damaged by MS cease to function. So that when people with MS become overheated, their ability to move and sense the environment is diminished. Choosing a mattress that will protect the individual from becoming overheated and that will provide skin protection is very important for the health of the person with MS.

MS nerve image

What are the various types of mattresses?

When choosing a mattress, it is important to consider the effects of that mattress on skin protection and heat intolerance. Mattresses may be either static or dynamic. In general, a static mattress refers to a mattress that doesn’t move when a person lies on it. A dynamic mattress is powered by electricity to change the surface under a person to allow for a variety of medical needs. Dynamic mattresses involve at least one of the following technologies: fluidized air, alternating pressure or side-to-side turning.

Dynamic Mattresses

  • Alternating Pressure with Low Air Loss: Alternating Pressure is when Air is pumped into cylinders that are placed parallel to each other inside a mattress. As one set of cylinders inflates, the other set deflates. This way the pressure under any part of the body is relieved on a regular basis. Low air loss: This involves the alternating pressure cylinders where a small amount of air leaks and rises through the special cover on a continuous basis. It helps to control moisture (like sweating). and helps dissipate heat.
  • Lateral Rotation: One side of the mattress deflates and the other side inflates, alternating over time, turning the person in the bed gently from side to side. This is normally used for patients with lung problems, but can be used for people with MS as another way to reduce the number of times an attendant must turn a person while in bed.
  • Air Fluidized Therapy (AFT) involves blowing warmed air through a bed of tiny silicone beads creating a surface that is like a “waterbed” but with warm air blowing up through it continuously. This type of surface is used mostly in health care institutions for patients either with very severe pressure ulcers (bedsores) or after surgery to close these wounds.

Of these mattresses, only fluidized air is heated. The heat can be adjusted so that people with MS can use these surfaces, but they carry some risk of overheating. Alternating pressure and side-to-side turning are not heated. Therefore, heat intolerance is not as much of an issue with these mattresses.

Static Mattresses

  • Viscoelastic or memory foam: One kind of static mattress that gets a lot of attention on TV is made of viscoelastic or memory foam (the Tempur-pedic ™). People with disabilities often find these mattresses difficult to use because they get "stuck" in a hole in the mattress and cannot move themselves out of it. Some medical mattresses are made of this substance but they do not really work out very well for people with MS.
  • Static Air: Another kind of static mattress is filled with air. The air is in interwoven but not interconnected air cells. That way when a person lies on the bed, the air cells move and adjust to small changes in position. This kind of mattress is a good basic surface for a person who does not have a high-risk of developing bedsores.