Do mattresses and mattress toppers made of foam prevent pressure ulcers?

Key messages

Mattresses and mattress toppers made of foam:

- may increase the risk of developing pressure ulcers when compared with air-filled surfaces;

- are probably less cost-effective than air-filled surfaces that regularly redistribute pressure under the body.

It is unclear if foam has an effect on pressure ulcers compared with surfaces made of fibre, gel or water cells.

Future studies should focus on options and effects that are important to decision-makers, such as:

- gel surfaces that apply constant skin pressure, compared with foam surfaces; and

- whether and when pressure ulcers develop, unwanted effects and costs.

What are pressure ulcers?

Pressure ulcers are also known as pressure sores or bed sores. They are wounds to the skin and underlying tissue caused by prolonged pressure or rubbing. They often occur on bony parts of the body, such as heels, elbows, hips and the bottom of the spine. People who have mobility problems or who lie in bed for long periods are at risk of developing pressure ulcers.

What did we want to find out?

There are beds, mattresses and mattress toppers specifically designed for people at risk of pressure ulcers. These can be made of a range of materials (such as foam, fibre, air cells or water bags) and are divided into two groups:

- reactive (static) surfaces that apply a constant pressure to the skin, unless a person moves or is repositioned; and

- active (alternating pressure) surfaces that regularly redistribute the pressure under the body.

We wanted to find out if mattresses and mattress toppers made of foam (a reactive surface):

- prevent pressure ulcers;

- are comfortable and improve people’s quality of life;

- have health benefits that outweigh their costs (cost-effectiveness); and

- have any unwanted effects.

What did we do?

We searched the medical literature for studies that evaluated the effects of mattresses and mattress toppers made of foam. We compared and summarised their results, and rated our confidence in the evidence, based on factors such as study methods and sizes.

What did we find?

We found 29 studies (9566 people, average age: 76 years) that lasted between five days and one year (average: 15 days). The studies compared foam with active and reactive surfaces made of gel, air cells, water bags and other foam types.

Pressure ulcer prevention

The evidence suggests that:

- foam surfaces may increase the risk of developing pressure ulcers when compared with active or reactive air-filled surfaces (8 studies);

- denser memory foam (foam that adapts to a person’s body shape) may be better than lighter memory foam for preventing pressure ulcers if the data on the time it takes to develop a new ulcer is looked at (1 study, duration: 11.5 days);

- flat foam surfaces may be better than ridged foam surfaces for preventing pressure ulcers if the data on the time it takes to develop a new ulcer is looked at (1 study, duration: 1 month).

It is unclear if foam has an effect on pressure ulcers compared to water or gel surfaces.

Other effects

Evidence from one study suggests that foam is probably less cost-effective than active, air-filled surfaces.

We did not find sufficiently robust and clear evidence to determine how foam affects comfort, quality of life and unwanted effects.

What limited our confidence in the evidence?

Most studies were small (101 people on average) and more than half (17 studies) used methods likely to introduce errors in their results.

How up-to-date is this review?

The evidence in this Cochrane Review is current to November 2019.

Authors' conclusions: 

Current evidence suggests uncertainty about the differences in pressure ulcer incidence, patient comfort, adverse events and health-related quality of life between using foam surfaces and other surfaces (reactive fibre surfaces, reactive gel surfaces, reactive foam and gel surfaces, or reactive water surfaces). Foam surfaces may increase pressure ulcer incidence compared with alternating pressure (active) air surfaces and reactive air surfaces. Alternating pressure (active) air surfaces are probably more cost-effective than foam surfaces in preventing new pressure ulcers.

Future research in this area should consider evaluation of the most important support surfaces from the perspective of decision-makers. Time-to-event outcomes, careful assessment of adverse events and trial-level cost-effectiveness evaluation should be considered in future studies. Trials should be designed to minimise the risk of detection bias; for example, by using digital photography and by blinding adjudicators of the photographs to group allocation. Further review using network meta-analysis will add to the findings reported here.

Read the full abstract...
Background: 

Pressure ulcers (also known as pressure injuries) are localised injuries to the skin or underlying soft tissue, or both, caused by unrelieved pressure, shear or friction. Foam surfaces (beds, mattresses or overlays) are widely used with the aim of preventing pressure ulcers.

Objectives: 

To assess the effects of foam beds, mattresses or overlays compared with any support surface on the incidence of pressure ulcers in any population in any setting.

Search strategy: 

In November 2019, we searched the Cochrane Wounds Specialised Register; the Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials (CENTRAL); Ovid MEDLINE (including In-Process & Other Non-Indexed Citations); Ovid Embase and EBSCO CINAHL Plus. We also searched clinical trials registries for ongoing and unpublished studies, and scanned reference lists of relevant included studies as well as reviews, meta-analyses and health technology reports to identify additional studies. There were no restrictions with respect to language, date of publication or study setting.

Selection criteria: 

We included randomised controlled trials that allocated participants of any age to foam beds, mattresses or overlays. Comparators were any beds, mattresses or overlays.

Data collection and analysis: 

At least two review authors independently assessed studies using predetermined inclusion criteria. We carried out data extraction, 'Risk of bias' assessment using the Cochrane 'Risk of bias' tool, and the certainty of the evidence assessment according to Grading of Recommendations, Assessment, Development and Evaluations methodology. If a foam surface was compared with surfaces that were not clearly specified, then the included study was recorded and described but not considered further in any data analyses.

Main results: 

We included 29 studies (9566 participants) in the review. Most studies were small (median study sample size: 101 participants). The average age of participants ranged from 47.0 to 85.3 years (median: 76.0 years). Participants were mainly from acute care settings. We analysed data for seven comparisons in the review: foam surfaces compared with: (1) alternating pressure air surfaces, (2) reactive air surfaces, (3) reactive fibre surfaces, (4) reactive gel surfaces, (5) reactive foam and gel surfaces, (6) reactive water surfaces, and (7) another type of foam surface. Of the 29 included studies, 17 (58.6%) presented findings which were considered at high overall risk of bias.

Primary outcome: pressure ulcer incidence

Low-certainty evidence suggests that foam surfaces may increase the risk of developing new pressure ulcers compared with (1) alternating pressure (active) air surfaces (risk ratio (RR) 1.59, 95% confidence interval (CI) 0.86 to 2.95; I2 = 63%; 4 studies, 2247 participants), and (2) reactive air surfaces (RR 2.40, 95% CI 1.04 to 5.54; I2 = 25%; 4 studies, 229 participants).

We are uncertain regarding the difference in pressure ulcer incidence in people treated with foam surfaces and the following surfaces: (1) reactive fibre surfaces (1 study, 68 participants); (2) reactive gel surfaces (1 study, 135 participants); (3) reactive gel and foam surfaces (1 study, 91 participants); and (4) another type of foam surface (6 studies, 733 participants). These had very low-certainty evidence.

Included studies have data on time to pressure ulcer development for two comparisons. When time to ulcer development is considered using hazard ratios, the difference in the risk of having new pressure ulcers, over 90 days' follow-up, between foam surfaces and alternating pressure air surfaces is uncertain (2 studies, 2105 participants; very low-certainty evidence). Two further studies comparing different types of foam surfaces also reported time-to-event data, suggesting that viscoelastic foam surfaces with a density of 40 to 60 kg/m3 may decrease the risk of having new pressure ulcers over 11.5 days' follow-up compared with foam surfaces with a density of 33 kg/m3 (1 study, 62 participants); and solid foam surfaces may decrease the risk of having new pressure ulcers over one month's follow-up compared with convoluted foam surfaces (1 study, 84 participants). Both had low-certainty evidence.

There was no analysable data for the comparison of foam surfaces with reactive water surfaces (one study with 117 participants).

Secondary outcomes

Support-surface-associated patient comfort: the review contains data for three comparisons for this outcome. It is uncertain if there is a difference in patient comfort measure between foam surfaces and alternating pressure air surfaces (1 study, 76 participants; very low-certainty evidence); foam surfaces and reactive air surfaces (1 study, 72 participants; very low-certainty evidence); and different types of foam surfaces (4 studies, 669 participants; very low-certainty evidence).

All reported adverse events: the review contains data for two comparisons for this outcome. We are uncertain about differences in adverse effects between foam surfaces and alternating pressure (active) air surfaces (3 studies, 2181 participants; very low-certainty evidence), and between foam surfaces and reactive air surfaces (1 study, 72 participants; very low-certainty evidence).

Health-related quality of life: only one study reported data on this outcome. It is uncertain if there is a difference (low-certainty evidence) between foam surfaces and alternating pressure (active) air surfaces in health-related quality of life measured with two different questionnaires, the EQ-5D-5L (267 participants) and the PU-QoL-UI (233 participants).

Cost-effectiveness: one study reported trial-based cost-effectiveness evaluations. Alternating pressure (active) air surfaces are probably more cost-effective than foam surfaces in preventing pressure ulcer incidence (2029 participants; moderate-certainty evidence).

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