From top-tier athletes to frequent fliers, compression wear keeps up the pressure to maximize health benefits
The rising popularity of compression socks can be chalked up to a couple of factors. First, they work and have a proven track record that dates back to the Middle Ages. Second, they’ve evolved out of the medical-use realm and now appeal to a wider range of users, from top-tier athletes to vacationers heading to destinations across the globe, looking to boost circulation, curb swelling of feet and legs and soothe weary limbs.
Now, add to the mix a boom in the attractiveness of compression garments. Compression stockings were once known for being beige and oh-so-boring, but manufacturers have tapped into a world of hip patterns and electric hues to make them fun to wear, whether you’re battling varicose veins or heart issues.
The concept behind compression wear is fairly simple. Blood has to defy the laws of gravity to flow up from the legs and back to the heart.
Further complicating that process may be issues such as injuries, lack of movement, circulation problems and veins that have weak walls (or, in medical terms, venous insufficiency). That results in blood pooling in the veins in the feet and lower legs, leading to localized swelling, tiredness and aches, or in a worst-case scenario, deep vein thrombosis (DVT), a clot that forms in the vein.
DVTs can be life threatening because the clots can become detached and travel into the lungs (pulmonary embolism).
Compression from the socks or stockings forces the veins to work harder, speeding up sluggish flow to the heart.
There’s also some smart design at play. Graduated compression socks are elasticized with the area around the ankle snugger and that closer to the calf looser.
“The stockings assist the blood flow from the ankle, where the major pump action happens,” explains Liane Gallant, the Calgary-based owner and certified advanced foot care specialist at Alberta’s Mobile Foot Care Service. “This way, the heart uses less effort to return the blood to the system.”
Jock talk for sports-minded wearers
Some athletes swear that compression socks give them a competitive edge. They believe that muscles rebound faster after intense activity, easing soreness. To date, the scientific data is scant. There’s a lack of comprehensive studies to make clear conclusions, according to 2017 research published in the Journal of Sport Rehabilitation, which reviewed available literature from the last 10 years. But that’s no reason to stop wearing compression socks. Even though science may not yet back up the claims, some runners, for example, just like the way they feel and believe the compression helps reduce calf damage.
Top tips for rookie purchasers
With so many varieties available, buying compression socks can feel a bit daunting, with prices ranging from under $10 to up to $100. And what the heck do those numbers on the packages mean? Don’t ignore those. They offer a key bit of information on how much support you’ll be getting. Compression wear features standardized measurements, making it easier to know what type works for you. For example, you might see “5–15 mmHG” (millimetres of mercury, the same numbers used in blood pressure) or “26–35 mmHG.” The lower the numbers, the less compression there is.
“Stockings come in various compression strengths,” explains Gallant. “Travel socks need only be 15 to 20 mmHg. The first level of gradient medical stockings is 20 to 30 mmHg. Then there are 30 to 40 mmHg as well for the more severe cases. Definitely, not all stockings are created equal; therefore, one should make sure they buy from a reputable company that uses gradient compression.”
Light–compression socks (5–15 mmHg) may be a good baby step for new users who just want to get a sense of how they feel and how they may help. These are just slightly tighter than regular socks. They can provide a bit of relief from minor swelling and tired, achy legs. They are effective for long-haul travellers (including pilots and flight attendants) or anyone sitting for long periods of time, hoping to avoid DVT, aka “economy-class syndrome.”
Around 16 to 25 mmHg is considered moderate, but the squeeze is more evident. These work for many medical conditions (including pregnancy) and are favoured by sporty types looking for faster muscle recovery post-run.
From 26 to 40 mmHg, you can expect relief from severe varicose veins, edema and lymphedema. When you get into the higher numbers or are wearing compression socks for medical reasons, it’s wise to consult with a doctor or other healthcare professional to get the appropriate support. Extra-firm types up to 50 mmHg should be used only under a physician’s supervision.
There are some people who should skip wearing compression socks. They include anyone with peripheral neuropathy (which creates a pins-and-needles sensation) or other conditions that affect skin sensation, skin infections, dermatitis, fragile skin and peripheral artery disease (a thickening of arterial walls that narrows blood vessels). For most other people, compression socks are safe to wear.
Another important pointer: Get the right size.
If your compression socks are uncomfortable, they are too tight. If you see any bagging or wrinkles, they’re too large. How you order them depends on the company, but normally you use your shoe size on which to base your buy. But note that many of us get our shoe size wrong, according to research from the British College of Podiatry. If you haven’t checked it in the last year, it’s good to double-check. Other companies take the measurements of your ankle and calf circumference, plus calf length, into account. If you go this route, get the measurements first thing in the morning, before any swelling occurs.
Bye bye, beige
Now that so many people have caught on to the feel-good benefits of compression socks, manufacturers have spiced up their offerings with patterns from mild to wild. Consider these highlights of what you can find for sale these days and you’ll understand why they are being included on so many must-have lists.