Compression socks can reduce swelling, blood clots, and even improve athletic performance - here's how to know if they're right for you

Compression socks can reduce swelling, blood clots, and even improve athletic performance - here's how to know if they're right for you
Compression socks may even help reduce muscle soreness in athletes.amriphoto/Getty Images
  • Compression socks can improve circulation, reduce blood clots, and ease swelling.
  • Compression socks can benefit people with varicose veins, diabetes, and venous ulcers.
  • To choose the right compression sock size, go to the doctor or a surgical supply store.

Compression socks, also known as compression stockings, are socks of various lengths that apply pressure to promote blood flow in your leg veins. They're typically tighter at the ankles and get looser as they go up the leg. They can be purchased over the counter or prescribed by a doctor.

Here is how compression socks work, their benefits, and possible side effects.

How compression socks work

"The veins of the legs have to return blood upstream right up to the heart," says Minesh Kahtri, MD, a nephrologist at NYU Langone Health. "What compression stockings do theoretically is improve how the veins work and keep the blood flowing upstream."
Compression socks are most often used alongside other therapies to treat patients who have circulation issues in their legs. They're also used to manage swelling in the legs and feet.

How do you put on compression socks?

  1. Apply talcum powder to your legs.
  2. Put socks on in the morning when swelling is down, says Khatri.
  3. Turn the foot part inside out.
  4. Put your foot inside
  5. Roll slowly up the leg

Benefits of compression socks

Compression socks are recommended for a variety of circulation issues in the legs.

Who may benefit from compression socks

    • Postoperative patients, who are at a greater risk of blood clots.
    • People with varicose veins, a condition that causes twisted and enlarged veins in the legs.
    • People with diabetes, who often experience swelling in the legs and feet.
    • Pregnant people
    • People with venous ulcers
    • Athletes
    • Frequent flyers or people on long flights, as sitting for long periods of time increases the risk of blood clots.
Benefits of compression socks include:

  • Improved circulation: Compression socks are commonly worn to improve blood flow in people with venous insufficiency.
  • Reduced risk of blood clots: Thigh-high compression socks have been shown to reduce the risk of blood clots in hospitalized patients who have undergone surgery, by exerting pressure on the legs and, increasing blood flow which prevents clotting.
  • Reduced swelling in legs and feet: A small 2017 study of people with diabetes who had swelling in their legs found mild knee-high compression socks significantly relieved swelling in the calf and ankles. Compression socks also improved swelling of the legs and feet in pregnant people, but more studies are needed.
  • Ulcer prevention: Venous ulcers are leg ulcers caused by disruption of blood flow. Compression socks are recommended to increase flow and prevent blood pooling, which speeds up ulcer healing and prevents recurrence.
  • Reduced orthostatic hypotension: Orthostatic hypotension is a condition where your blood pressure drops dramatically when moving from sitting or lying down to standing up. Doctors suggest waist-high compression stockings might help improve blood flow and reduce symptoms. Talk to your doctor to see if compression garments would be right for you.
  • Improved athletic performance: A small 2009 study found below-knee compression socks significantly improved running performance in male runners, and they could also reduce muscle soreness. But more studies are needed to understand the effects of compression on athletic performance.

Can wearing compression socks be harmful?

Compression socks are generally considered safe, and side effects from properly fitting compression socks are mild such as skin irritation or indentations.

Compression socks that are too tight could cause:

  • Pain
  • Numbness
  • Tingling
  • Discoloration
"If too tight, compression socks could cause discomfort, or worst-case scenario, cut off circulation in people with vascular disease," says Kahtri. "If not tight enough, they won't be effective." Compression socks come in a variety of sizes and lengths. There are five strengths of compression socks that differ based on the amount of pressure they exert on the legs:
  • Mild (8-15 mmHg)
  • Medium (15-20 mmHg)
  • Firm (20-30 mmHg)
  • X-Firm (30-40 mmHg)

Note: Get fitted for socks by your doctor or at a surgical supply store to make sure you choose the right size, says Kahtri.

You should avoid wearing compression socks if you have:

Important: People with diabetes should talk to their doctor before using compression socks, as they are prone to arterial insufficiency, a condition where the arteries become narrowed or blocked. Compression socks can further impede blood flow.

How long should you wear compression socks?

"It's okay to wear compression stockings all day," says Vincent Noori, MD, a vascular surgeon at Mercy Medical Center. "I usually recommend they be applied early in the morning after getting out of bed and wearing them most of the day, especially when on your feet or sitting for prolonged periods."

Compression socks should not be worn while sleeping. Compression socks are designed to work against gravity and help blood flow up to the heart, so it's not necessary to use them while you're laying down for long periods of time.

Insider's takeaway

Compression socks improve circulation and promote blood flow by adding pressure to the legs, decreasing the risk of blood clots, leg ulcers, and swelling. If you think compression socks could help you, check with your doctor or pharmacist to make sure you find the proper fit.
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