What Are Compression Stockings?
Compression stockings, also known as compression socks, are specially made socks that fit tighter than normal so they gently squeeze your legs. Wearing them helps improve your blood flow and reduces pain and swelling in your legs. They can also lower your chances of getting deep vein thrombosis (DVT), a kind of blood clot, and other circulation problems.
They come in different lengths and tightness, and you can get compression sleeves, which don't have feet.
You can buy them over the counter, but if your doctor prescribes them, your insurance may cover the cost. You can also get them at medical supply companies, online, and in many drugstores. They can cost between $10 and $100 per pair, depending on what kind you get.
Who Should Use Compression Stockings?
Compression stockings are safe for most people to wear. You might have even seen your favorite athletes wearing them.
You might benefit from wearing them if you:
- Are at risk for circulation problems, like DVT, varicose veins, or diabetes
- Are recovering from surgery
- Have, or are at risk for, lymphedema (a buildup of fluid usually drained by your lymphatic system)
- Are bedridden or have a hard time moving your legs
- Sit or stand all day at work
- Play sports
- Are pregnant
- Spend long stretches of time on airplanes
How Do Compression Socks Work?
Graduated compression stockings are tightest around your ankle, and the pressure eases as the socks go up your leg. Researcher think this helps increase how much and how fast your blood flows from your feet and back up to your heart.
The arteries that take oxygen-rich blood to your muscles can relax, so your blood flows freely. Your veins also get a boost pushing blood back to your heart, which helps keep it from pooling and clotting. If you get a clot in your veins, your blood backs up behind it, and it can cause pain and swelling in your legs. Worse, if a clot breaks free, it can travel through your heart and lodge in your lungs, causing a dangerous pulmonary embolism (PE).
But compression stockings aren't just to prevent blood clots and reduce swelling. Some athletes, including runners, basketball players, and triathletes, swear by compression socks. They wear them to help with exercise recovery and so their muscles won't be as sore or cramp as much.
In an analysis of nearly 1,000 studies, researchers found that some athletes wearing below-the-knee compression stockings did actually perform better, but only in a few of the studies. Most of the research found that compression stockings just helped athletes recover faster right after they exercised. We need more research to see if wearing compression socks can make any difference for weekend warriors, too.
Benefits of Compression Socks
Compression socks can help your body in many ways when you wear them correctly. Their main purpose is to improve your circulation, which keeps oxygen-rich blood flowing in your body.
Compression stockings can also:
- Help prevent and reduce pain and discomfort in your legs
- Reduce swelling in your legs, feet, and ankles
- Lessen muscle strain when exercising, which helps you recover faster
- Protect against blood clots when you sit or stand for long periods
- Lessen dizziness when you stand up
- Support your veins to prevent or treat spider and varicose veins
Types of Compression Stockings
Compression socks and stockings come in different lengths and pressures to cover different parts of your body. For DVT, most stockings go to just below the knee, but you can get thigh-highs and waist-length tights, too.
They also have different levels of pressure, measured in mmHg (millimeters of mercury). Stockings should feel snug, but not painfully tight. Mild compression, with lower numbers, is usually enough to keep you comfortable on your feet at work. You'll need higher numbers with a firmer fit to prevent DVT.
There are two common types of compression socks:
Graduated compression stockings. This type is more common. You can find them in a wide range of tightness. They tend to be tighter around your ankles and get looser the higher they go up your leg.
Thrombo-embolic deterrent (TED) hose or anti-embolism stockings. These are designed to help maintain your blood circulation and lower the odds of severe swelling. They're mostly used after surgery and when you need to stay in bed.
If you need the stockings for medical reasons, your doctor will measure your legs and prescribe the right ones for you.
How to Pick Compression Stockings
If it’s your first time trying compression socks or stockings, it's best to talk to you doctor or health care provider about what type you need.
Here are some tips on how to choose the right compression stocking for you.
Pick the right type. To get the most of out of compression socks, find ones that fit you well and are the correct length. For example, if you buy graduated compression stockings from a store but they aren’t working well enough, you might need to upgrade to prescription-grade stockings. Or you might need to adjust or wear them properly. Talk to your doctor about it. They can help you figure out the right fit and pressure.
Choose the correct compression level. How much compression you need on your legs will depend on the type of condition you have. The manufacturer labels them based on a range of compression in mmHg.
Your options include:
- Low compression. These provide less than 20 mmHg. You can buy these stockings or socks online or at your local pharmacy.
- Medium compression. These provide tightness between 20 and 30 mmHg. They will help those who’ve had a DVT or varicose veins control swelling and pain.
- Moderate to high compression. These provide between 30 and 40 mmHg. They're best for those who have severe pain or swelling.
- Firm compression. This type gives between 40 and 50 mmHg. They're usually used by people who have a history of severe vein problems or blood clots.
Pick one that fits right. Before you pick a stocking, measure the length and girth of your ankle, calves, and leg if you’re opting for thigh-high or waist-high leggings.
For prescription-grade compression wear, trained staff at a medical supply store will most likely take your measurements and find you the right fit. They’ll also teach you how to put the stockings on and take them off. It’s best to get your measurements taken when your legs are least swollen.
If you’re not able to reach your feet, there are "stocking aid" devices that can help you roll your compression stockings on. You can also ask a close friend or family member to help you out.
How to Wear Compression Stockings
To get the most out of your compression stockings, you need to be sure you're wearing them correctly. When you put them on, be sure they're smooth and they lie flat against your skin and avoid bunching.
Make sure they aren't too long. Don't fold or roll the tops down, because that can make them too tight. It could cause blood flow problems or cut off your circulation like a tourniquet. You can wear socks, slippers, and shoes over compression stockings.
You should replace your stockings every 3 to 6 months. Consider having your legs measured again when you order new pairs.
How many hours should you wear compression stockings?
If your doctor told you to wear them, you'll probably want to keep them on most of the day. Your doctor should tell you how often and how long you need to use them. Most compression socks are safe to wear for a few hours.
You can wear prescribed compression stockings all day and sometimes even all night. You can take them off to shower or bathe.
Should you sleep with compression stockings?
For over-the-counter compression socks, there’s often no benefit to wearing them overnight. Taking them off overnight gives your skin a break to avoid damage.
If you have prescribed compression stockings for medical use, your doctor may tell you to wear them overnight. When it comes to sleeping in compression stockings, follow your doctor’s advice.
Tips for First-Time Compression Stocking Users
If you're trying out compression socks for the first time, you might find them a little difficult to manage. To make them a easier to put on, here are a few tips you should consider.
- Wear the stockings first thing in the morning when your legs are less likely to be swollen.
- Roll the stockings inside out to the ankle. Slip your feet in and slowly roll them up your legs and smooth out the fabric to avoid snags.
- If you’re wearing thigh-highs or leggings, stand up to pull them up past your knees.
- Try wearing rubber gloves while you put on your stockings so you can get a better grip on them.
- Don't wear any jewelry that could tear or snag your compression socks when you're putting them on.
- Avoid applying lotion or oils right before you wear the stockings. Moisture makes it harder to pull stockings on.
- Wash new stockings in mild soap before you wear them. It makes the fabric pliable and easier to wear.
- If you can, buy more than one pair so you have a clean pair while one is dirty.
When you first put them on, compression socks or stockings might feel uncomfortable and make your legs ache or feel sore. This is normal, and you should get used to them after a few wears. But if you have extreme pain, or your legs or feet become discolored, call your doctor right away.
Side Effects of Wearing Compression Stockings
Compression stockings can have some side effects, especially if you're not wearing them correctly or you're wearing the wrong size. The most common side effects include:
- Skin irritation, such as itchiness or feeling cold or warm
- Pain or discomfort
Rare side effects include:
- Allergic reaction to the stocking material
- Bacterial or fungal infection
- Soft tissue damage
Side effects often happen when you don’t have properly sized stockings or wear them incorrectly. If the top of the stocking at the thigh or calf is too tight, it can create a tourniquet effect. This actually blocks or slows your blood flow.
You shouldn't wear compression socks if you have severe peripheral artery disease (PAD) because it makes the blood vessels in your legs narrow, reducing your blood flow.
Compression stockings are tighter than average socks you wear. They gently squeeze your legs to help your blood flow back toward your heart. They help prevent your legs from swelling and help you avoid health problems like blood clots, varicose veins, spider veins, and deep vein thrombosis (DVT). They come in several sizes and pressures, and you can get them over the counter or by prescription.
Compression Stockings FAQs
Is there a downside to wearing compression socks?
Compression stockings are generally safe but can cause you pain or even cut off your circulation if you don't wear the proper size. The pressure also can cause minor bruising or skin ulcers, and tightly fitting socks also can cause dry skin, redness, and itching. But these are all unlikely when you wear the correct size.
How many hours should you wear compression stockings?
It depends on the type of compression stocking you're wearing. Most compression socks are safe to wear for a few hours. Others, like prescribed compression stockings, are safe to wear all day and sometimes even all night. Talk to your doctor about how long it's safe to wear your compression socks.