If you’ve been ignoring your tired, achy or swollen legs because you’re worried compression stockings will make you look frumpy, it’s time to update your thinking. In terms of fashion and feel, they have come a long way.
Thirty or 40 years ago, compression stockings “were not the prettiest, not the most comfortable [and] the materials weren’t as good,” acknowledges Oakville, ON-based vascular surgeon Dr. Bev Chan, who treats patients with vein-related conditions. Today, manufacturers are making compression legwear that looks like regular socks, everything from “really fun” sport socks to full pantyhose to leggings and open-toed socks you can wear with sandals.
Prevention of a life-threatening medical condition
Medically speaking, compression stockings provide a graduated pressure on the leg that pushes the blood from the bottom of the legs into their deep venous system, allowing blood to return to the heart. Wearing compression garments is an amazingly effective of managing many chronic venous conditions. For instance, compression stockings can reduce or even eliminate edemas (swelling of the leg, ankles or feet) and they can slow the progression of varicose veins, which puts patients at significantly higher risk of developing life-threatening deep vein thrombosis (DVT), according to this 2018 study. (You’re also at a higher risk of developing a DVT, if you are over 60, you have been hospitalized after a hip fracture, or you are travelling long-distance, adds Chan.)
Not all patients with a DVT, a blood clot that forms in the deep veins of the legs, show symptoms. In fact, some people don’t realize they have a DVT until the clot breaks loose and goes into the lungs, resulting in a pulmonary embolism, which can be deadly. (An estimated 45,000 Canadians are affected by DVT with one in four deaths caused by blood clots or thrombosis.)
Additionally, once you’ve had a DVT you’re vulnerable to developing post-thrombotic syndrome (PTS), which can show up as chronic pain or swelling. In some cases, PTS can develop into painful open ulcers, which Chan calls “the worst case scenario.”
Other tips for to control vein conditions
Besides wearing compression stockings, Chan advises patients with venous conditions to drink lots of water and to lose weight, if obese. She also says that walking 30 minutes or more each day will help prevent venous hypertension and swelling. “I really want them [patients] to maintain their calf and thigh muscles because it’s really important to get the circulation going in their legs.” As well, Chan advises patients who work in an office to move around every hour even if it’s only a walk to the bathroom. Another tip: Elevate your legs when watching TV.
If you decide to get compression stockings, you can go to a certified fitter, who will measure your leg, preferably first thing in the morning when your legs are at their thinnest. A fitter can show you how to wear your garment properly, says Chan, who adds that patients sometimes pull knee-high compression socks up to the crease of the knee, when they should end beneath the knee.
Patients who have been prescribed a firm compression stocking and/or who have arthritis may need to use a donning device that can help guide the socks up and down their legs. For a cheaper alternative, try wearing dollar store rubber gloves while you put on your socks for a better grip, says Chan, who adds that many insurance plans cover the cost of compression stockings.
Even if you don’t have vein problems, think about wearing non-prescription compression stockings as they help improve circulation while you’re sitting, whether you’re on a long flight or have a sedentary job. The only caveat is if you have uncontrolled heart failure, arterial problems or leg infection, says Chan. In fact, you might even follow the lead of Chan, who doesn’t have vein problems. She says 90 percent of the socks in her drawer are compression stockings simply because she likes the way they feel.