The short answer is that you can, but in most cases, we would not recommend it. The best option for comfort and safety is a hospital bed mattress, also known as a therapeutic mattress or medical mattress.
However, depending on the age and health of the patient, a regular mattress may occasionally be sufficient.
This article will explore the various reasons you might need a medical mattress, the benefits and risks, what features to look for, and when it might be okay to use a regular mattress.
Who Needs a Hospital Bed Mattress?
A hospital bed mattress is a key part of healthcare and recovery both at home or in the hospital.
People may seek a medical mattress for several reasons. You may be a caregiver for a loved one who is aging and needs hospice care. Hospital beds may also benefit people who live with chronic pain, are recovering from a long-term injury, or are bedridden due to long-term disease.
For anyone who needs to spend extended periods in bed, a specialized mattress is a good idea. These mattresses are created to promote circulation, regulate temperature, and prevent wounds associated with extended immobility.
Why Does the Type of Mattress Matter?
Mattresses on hospital beds need to check a lot of boxes. In many ways they are similar to any piece of medical equipment – they are built to promote health and prevent injury, and are key to patient safety.
Hospital bed mattresses need to be comfortable for a patient who has limited movement for long periods. A good mattress for a hospital bed will provide pressure relief, antibacterial properties, and high-quality support. They also need to be adjustable since most hospital beds can be lifted and lowered at the head or feet.
What Are the Risks of Choosing the Wrong Mattress?
One of the biggest risks to an improper hospital mattress is that it may cause a patient to develop pressure ulcers (also known as bedsores).
Pressure ulcers are wounds on the skin and tissue that develop with sustained pressure and friction against the body. They develop most commonly on bony parts of the body with less padding – like the elbows, knees, hips, heels, and tailbone. Anyone can develop pressure sores, but they are most common in bed-ridden patients or those confined to a wheelchair.
If left untreated, pressure ulcers can be fatal. Treatment and therapy are possible, but some sores may never fully heal.
A recent study estimated that the United States spends $11 billion annually on treating pressure ulcers.
The good news? Another study revealed that proper mattresses, or switching out mattresses at a hospital can reduce stage 3 and 4 ulcers by 66%. A good mattress can help reduce pressure points by evenly distributing weight – which can prevent ulcers from developing.
What are the Different Types of Hospital Bed Mattresses?
Mattresses can be built with various materials and types of support. Hospital bed mattresses can be specialized even further to support long-term inactivity. Here are the main types of mattresses used on hospital beds, and what benefits they offer.
Innerspring mattresses are often the most affordable option. The interior of the mattress uses a system of metal spring coils to support the weight of the occupant. The springs are combined with high-quality foam or other cushioning material and can accommodate various body shapes and pressure redistribution.
Innerspring mattresses are ideal for people who sleep hot, as the springs allow for better airflow than a solid foam mattress. They may also be more comfortable for stomach sleepers, as they have less give and maintain a flatter surface.
You can find a wide variety of innerspring mattresses on the market, with differently sized coils. You can also add a mattress topper for comfort.
Foam Mattress or Memory Foam Mattress
Memory foam mattresses are all the rage in the mattress industry right now. While foam mattresses and mattress toppers have been around for a long time, the mattress-in-a-box trend has brought layered foam mattress tech into homes across Australia.
Memory foam mattresses are built with high-quality layers of foam of varied densities. These layers allow the mattress to form body-hugging support that also distributes weight evenly and relieves pressure points.
Another great feature of memory foam mattresses is that you don’t have to flip them regularly to distribute wear across the mattress.
Foam mattresses can be a little pricier than innerspring. Another option if you have a tighter budget is to consider a foam mattress topper, which we outline below.
Gel-infused mattresses are technically another type of memory foam mattress – sometimes known as third-generation foam.
Gel-infused mattresses feel very similar to memory foam, but with a few key differences that some sleepers may prefer.
- Cooler Sleep: Because gel stays fairly cool, it helps distribute heat and keep you cooler as you sleep or rest on it. If you or your loved one is having heat issues with a foam mattress, you may want to look into a gel mattress.
- Springier support: You may have noticed that if you push your hand down on memory foam, you’ll be able to see your handprint for quite some time. Gel springs back much quicker. For people who move a lot in their sleep, memory foam can make them feel stuck in the position they started in. With a little extra spring from the gel, you can much more easily settle into new positions.
The one drawback to gel memory foam mattresses is that they are more expensive than the other options. Of course, price depends on size and brand as well, so it’s worth exploring your options.
Medical Air Mattress
We normally think of air mattresses as a travel solution or a last-minute option when we have too many guests and someone has to sleep on the floor.
But air-supported mattresses provide extremely effective support for people who are stuck in a hospital bed. These mattresses aren’t the plastic blow-up beds we normally think of. Rather, they are mattresses with air cells or cylinders spaced throughout the mattress.
These air cylinders are built for air to flow through to adjust pressure evenly across the body and alternate the places where you carry weight.
Medical air mattresses are specifically made for people at the highest risk of developing pressure ulcers, or bedsores. We recommend a hospital air mattress if you are purchasing a mattress for someone who will spend 15 hours or more in their hospital bed.
Hospital air mattresses provide various features. These are the primary types, though many mattresses will overlap:
- Alternating Pressure: This type of mattress has air cells that fill with air and deflate at intervals to relieve pressure across the body. Intermittent movement helps stimulate blood flow and prevent wounds or sores from developing. This type of mattress is ideal for people who are permanently or nearly permanently bedridden.
- Low Air Loss: These mattresses very slowly release air while pulling in new air, maintaining a constant but very natural airflow. The pressure relief is less targeted than in an alternating pressure mattress but is ideal for regulating temperature while also distributing weight points.
- Lateral Rotation Mattress: This type of mattress helps promote sleep and prevent sores for people who are permanently bedridden and may not be able to move even in sleep. With a combination of alternating pressure and low air loss, these beds are designed to rotate the occupant bilaterally at intervals to ensure they can rest on their sides as well as their back.
Bariatric mattresses – sometimes known as “bigger figure” mattresses – are designed for people who are overweight or medically obese. While they are typically considered for people with medical conditions, bariatric mattresses can also be used by individuals who want extra support and high-quality weight distribution technology.
Heavy-duty springs are the key feature that set bariatric mattresses apart. They are built to be durable and maintain shape and support for greater weights. High-density foam layers help avoid compressing too much and creating deeper dents. This layering helps keep the occupant’s weight distributed evenly and comfortably.
Some bariatric mattresses also employ air mattress technology to keep air flowing and reduce pressure points.
These mattresses are made with high standards for durability and materials and are very long-lasting.
Mattress Toppers & Overlays
Any mattress can be improved or adjusted with a good mattress topper. If you want to save money by purchasing an innerspring mattress but still get the benefit of memory foam, you can look for a fairly inexpensive mattress pad.
Overlays are essentially mattress toppers with a higher standard for quality and very specific features. These mattress toppers are made for hospital beds and can include many of the features above, including gel, foam, and air pressure.
A hospital bed overlay will also generally be waterproof and highly adjustable.
Some experts also recommend the classic “egg-crate” design for a hospital bed. An egg-crate overlay can help distribute weight very efficiently across the entire mattress.
Can You Put A Regular Mattress On A Hospital Bed?
So we’ve explored the various types of mattresses built specifically for hospital beds. But what if you or your loved one doesn’t have the acute needs solved by a medical mattress? Is a high-quality regular mattress sufficient?
Again, the answer is yes, but only in some cases.
The risks involved in getting a regular mattress for a hospital bed may seem insignificant, but they can make all the difference in a patient’s recovery time and comfort. Consider these risks before you buy:
- Adjustability: Hospital beds can be raised and lowered so that even patients who can’t sit up can be propped up. Most regular mattresses don’t have the flexibility to bed with a hospital bed.
- Pressure relief: While many high-quality regular mattresses do a good job of weight distribution, for anyone regularly spending more than 10-15 hours in bed, a regular mattress won’t do enough to relieve pressure points and protect skin and tissues.
- Size: Sometimes hospital beds come in odd sizes. Regular mattresses may not fit correctly, or may not fit with side rails.
While the risks above should be considered very seriously, there are a few situations in which a regular mattress might work. Healthier or younger patients may ultimately need firmer support than a hospital bed mattress provides.
You may want to consider a regular mattress if you are purchasing for:
- Patients who are not confined to bed: If the bed’s occupant can get up and move around, they won’t need the acute care of a hospital bed mattress. In this case, they may prefer a mattress that they already love and find comfortable.
- Younger patients: A younger and healthier person who is just recovering from an injury or experiencing a brief illness may prefer a firmer mattress. They may prefer a mattress they already know they love.
If you do decide to go with a regular mattress, be sure you look for one that has good support, airflow, and weight distribution.
What Factors Should You Consider When Choosing a Mattress for a Hospital Bed?
So you know the differences between hospital bed mattresses vs. regular mattresses. But what else should you be considering as you search for a new mattress?
Here are the top factors to consider before you make your purchase.
Whether you decide to purchase a therapeutic mattress or a regular mattress, you can look for specific features that will improve a patient’s experience.
A few of the most important features are:
- Waterproof: A waterproof mattress, usually accomplished with a vinyl cover, will protect against spills and accidents. Ultimately a waterproof mattress will last longer and maintain its quality.
- Antimicrobial/Antibacterial: Antimicrobial mattresses are a good idea for anyone, but essential for people who are spending a long time in bed. These mattresses protect against infections, whether bacterial, fungal, etc.
- Easy-cleaning: Particularly if you plan to use this mattress during homecare, you should look for one that is easy to clean. Patient care requires a lot of work, and you don’t want to spend hours cleaning a mattress. You can also look for mattresses with removable covers.
- Adjustable bed: Most hospital beds are adjustable, with the ability to raise the head or legs for comfort and weight distribution. Look for a quality mattress that is pliable and accommodates the bed’s changing shapes.
A traditional hospital bed is 35 inches wide and 80 inches long. Make sure that you know the dimensions of the bed frame before purchasing or even shopping for any mattresses.
Budget is one of the most important things to keep in mind. We’ve outlined a few different ways to consider budget – including purchasing a cheaper mattress and a therapeutic mattress topper or overlay. Know your budget and consider creative solutions.
The Health of the Patient
As we described above, the type of mattress you choose should be almost wholly dependent on the health of the patients. For anyone who is highly immobile and most at risk of developing bedsores, choose a high-quality therapeutic mattress.
For anyone who is overweight and might need more support, consider a bariatric mattress.
So, can you use a regular mattress on a hospital bed? The final factor to consider is brand. When it comes to medical care, we recommend choosing from only trusted brands with excellent reviews. Look for brands built for a long lifespan and offering specific features for healthcare or medical equipment.
A few of the best brands in Australia and globally are Invacare, Drive Medical, Steinz, and SenTech.
With all of this in mind, you are ready to find the best mattress for whatever your situation.
- McCall, W. V., Boggs, N., & Letton, A. (2012). Changes in sleep and wake in response to different sleeping surfaces: a pilot study. Applied ergonomics, 43(2):386-391. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0003687011000858
- Dolynchuk, K., Keast, D., Campbell, K., et al., (2000). Best practices for the prevention and treatment of pressure ulcers. Ostomy Wound Management, 46(11):38-52. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/11889736/
- Sideranko, S., Quinn, A., Burns, K., & Froman, R. D. (1992). Effects of position and mattress overlay on sacral and heel pressures in a clinical population. Research in nursing & health, 15(4):245-251. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/nur.4770150403
- Elsabrout, K., Orbacz, E., McMahon, L. A., & Apold, S. (2018). Large‐scale hospital mattress switch‐out leads to reduction hospital‐acquired pressure ulcers: Operationalization of a multidisciplinary task force. Worldviews on Evidence‐Based Nursing, 15(3):161-169. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29517127/
- Wake, W. T. (2010). Pressure ulcers: what clinicians need to know. The Permanente Journal, 14(2):56. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2912087/
- Vanderwee, K., Grypdonck, M., & Defloor, T. (2008). Alternating pressure air mattresses as prevention for pressure ulcers: A literature review. International journal of nursing studies, 45(5):784-801. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0020748907001666
- Ferrell, B. A., Osterweil, D., & Christenson, P. (1993). A randomized trial of low-air-loss beds for treatment of pressure ulcers. JAMA, 269(4):494-497. https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/article-abstract/403027
- Anderson, C., & Rappl, L. (2004). LATERAL ROTATION. Ostomy/wound management, 50(4):50-62. https://sofies.no/wp-content/uploads/2017/09/Lateral-Rotation-Article-by-C.-Anderson-et-al.pdf