Although there is no one perfect answer for all people with “bad” backs, in general you will do better with a sofa that has “ extra-firm” seat cushions with a seat height that is 20″ – 21″ (slightly higher than normal.)
The extra firmness and additional height make it easier to get up out of a sofa without putting a strain on the back (or leg) muscles.
The simplest way to get a couch with a higher seat height is to find one with standard screw on legs.
There are several websites that sell sofa legs and will have replacement screw-on legs that are slightly higher than the ones that come with the original sofa.
Identifying “extra-firm” cushions will take more research. The problem is that it is possible (and extremely common) for a seat cushion to feel “firm” when brand new, but to begin to soften up after only a few months.
The most common “firm” seat cushion currently found in mass produced sofas uses an 1836 foam. If you have back or leg problems you will almost certainly do better with upgraded cushions.
1836 foam seat cushions have a 1.8 density (lbs. per cubic ft. of polyurethane foam) with an ILD (firmness rating) of 36.
The foam density does have an effect on the firmness of the cushion, but is more important as an indication of how long a cushion will last before the foam begins to break down (soften) over time.
It is not unusual for a 1.8 density foam cushion to begin feeling noticeably softer after only a few months of use.
The higher the foam density the longer the cushion will retain its initial firmness. For residential use, densities of 2.0 to 2.5 can be found among better quality sofas.
Where 1.8 density cushions are typically backed by 1 year warranties higher density cushions may be backed by warranties of 3-5 years or longer.
Foam densities of 3.0 or higher are typically used in commercial and institutional seating such as hotels or public seating areas where frequent use (and very large individuals) can be expected.
A specific foam density can be available in a dozen or more ILD firmness ratings. Increasing the ILD can temporarily make an inexpensive low density foam “feel” firmer until the foam begins to compress and lose its resilience.
For those with back problems a high density foam combined with an ILD of 35 – 45 should give you a long-lasting extra-firm seat cushion.
Back cushions are most typically made by blowing polyester fiber or feathers/down into a ticking. Most standard back cushions should be fine, but if you are getting a custom sofa made you may want to specify an additional 0.5 oz. of fill. That will slightly increase the firmness of the back.
You may also want to consider a “lift” chair. These are chairs, similar to recliners, that have a special mechanism that raises itself to assist the sitter in getting up (and sitting down.)
These “lift” chairs may be available in some furniture stores, but you can often find a better selection in a health equipment or medical supply retailer.
Don’t expect a lot of style, but these chairs are designed specifically to assist people with back or leg problems.
With a lift chair the type of foam is not as important. Most “lift” chairs use the standard 1836 foam.
I have not seen a “lift” sofa, but they may be out there somewhere.
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