What is Orthopedic Foam?

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  • Written By: C.B. Fox
  • Edited By: Jenn Walker
  • Last Modified Date: 25 February 2020
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Orthopedic foam, or memory foam, is a material that was developed by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in the United States in the 1970s. Originally used to cushion aircraft landings, NASA released the technology to the public domain in the 1980s. Since that time, the technology has been adapted for use in the mattress industry, as inserts in shoes and as a material for pet beds.

Orthopedic foam is made of open-cell polyurethane-silicon plastic. This form of plastic excels at distributing weight and pressure evenly, which makes it an excellent shock absorber. For years, the material was used exclusively by NASA because its ability to absorb pressure protected aircraft during high-impact landings. The foam has the ability to return to its original shape even after being compressed down to 10% of its normal size. In its early days, memory foam did not hold up well after many uses, but developments in the technology have greatly increased its longevity.


Hospitals were one of the first industries to use memory foam after it was released to the public. The foam’s ability to absorb pressure and distribute weight evenly provided relief for bedridden patients. On a traditional mattress, pressure points develop where the body contacts the mattress, which can lead to bed sores. The even weight distribution on an orthopedic foam mattress eases these pressure points, increasing comfort for ill patients. After gaining popularity in hospitals, mattress companies began marketing memory foam pads and mattresses for commercial use.

The materials in an orthopedic foam mattress are quite temperature sensitive, remaining firmer in cooler temperatures and becoming softer when warmed. This is the reason a person experiences a sinking sensation when they first lie down on the mattress, as the foam is still conforming to the shape and weight of the body. Though the material makes a comfortable sleeping surface, a mattress made entirely of memory foam is does not provide adequate support for the back or joints. Most quality memory foam mattresses are made of a firmer material that is topped with 2 to 3 inches (about 5 to 8 cm) of memory foam.

Widespread use of memory foam has reduced the costs of manufacturing. This has opened up the industry to other uses of orthopedic foam, including shoe inserts and pet beds. With the expansion of the memory foam industry, there is a wide array of qualities in the composition of the material. Buyers should research the available products carefully before investing in orthopedic foam products.


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