Why Wear Compression Socks
For most people, the use of compression socks evokes visions of elite marathoners, senior citizens, or bedridden hospital patients. However, there are numerous reasons compression socks should be worn.
How do Compression Socks Work?
Compression socks are knee-high, elastic socks that are pulled over the foot and generally rest below the knee. These garments are intended to compress the entire lower leg, including feet, ankles, and calves. Compression socks are constructed from strong elastic or rubber fibers, which apply compression to the feet, ankles, calves, and shins.
When compression socks are worn, the compression works to reduce the diameter of veins in the lower legs. This reduction results in increased blood flow velocity. In addition, the reduction of vein diameter improves the effectiveness of the valves in both veins and arteries. The overall effect is reduced venous pressure, enhanced circulation, and greater venous wall support. Overall, when veins, muscles, and arteries are compressed and circulating blood is forced through these small channels, venous return (i.e., the flow of blood back to the heart) is significantly improved.
Graduated compression socks have varying levels of compression throughout the sock. The level of compression will be highest toward the ankle and will continue to decrease until the lowest level of compression is experienced at the top cuff. Graduated compression is used to fight gravity by pushing blood flow toward the heart. As blood pools in the lowest portions of the body, it is difficult for the body to return the blood back to the heart for recirculation. However, graduated compression causes the highest level of constriction in the ankle, which pushes blood upwards. The result is greater venous return.
The most common style of compression socks are knee-high, which rest just below the knee. This style is preferred by many people as being most comfortable and easy to wear.
What to Look for When Purchasing Compression Socks
When selecting the best compression socks, do you know which type of socks should you choose? There are many choices available, including various lengths, compression grades, and purposes.
First, when choosing compression socks it is important to note the style. Knee-high compression socks, which cover the entire lower leg from toe to just below the knee, are the preferred style by many.
Second, you should find compression socks that have an appropriate level of compression for your needs. The levels of compression are as follows:
- 8-15 mmHg: relieves minor swelling
- 15-20 mmHg: prevents and relieves minor varicose veins prevents deep vein thrombosis
- 20-30 mmHg: prevents and relieves moderate to severe varicose veins; treats moderate to severe edema; prevents deep vein thrombosis
- 30-40 mmHg: prevents and relieves severe varicose veins; treats severe edema; prevents deep vein thrombosis
If you are unsure which level of compression is best for your needs, consult a physician.
The third step in choosing the best compression socks for your needs is to take proper measurements. For knee-high socks, you should first record the circumference of your calf by measuring the widest part of your lower leg. This measurement, in addition to your shoe size, is used to determine which compression sock size is best for you.
Top 10 Reasons to Wear Compression Socks
There are many reasons to wear compression socks, regardless of your age, gender, or presence of any pre-existing medical condition. The top 10 most common reasons to wear compression socks include:
Compression Socks Improve Athletic Performance
Compression socks improve athletic performance by enhancing blood flow to and from lower extremities during activity. When training, hard-working muscles utilize oxygen-rich blood for fuel, then create deoxygenated metabolic waste products, such as lactic acid. This lactic acid build-up can cause muscle soreness and fatigue. Compression socks, however, improve circulation and blood flow, keeping deoxygenated blood from pooling in the lower legs and preventing lactic acid formation. If you look at the starting line of any race, you will find elite runners donning their favorite compression socks, both men and women alike.
Additionally, compression socks also enhance post-exercise recovery. As soon as an athlete has finished exercising, the immune system goes to work repairing any damage that was sustained. Mediators and white blood cells are released to initiate repair, which results in swelling and discomfort. Compression socks speed up the recovery process by reducing swelling and inflammation to help muscles recover at a faster rate.
Compression Socks Reduce Swelling and Edema
Compression socks have many uses, both in the athletic and medical environments. Compression socks can be worn to reduce the build-up of fluids in the lower legs. For instance, women might wear compression socks to reduce swelling and edema in their feet and ankles during pregnancy. In a similar manner, diabetic patients may utilize compression socks to keep swelling in the feet to a minimum. People with varicose veins can also benefit from graduated compression. Hospital patients that are bedridden rely on compression socks to keep blood from pooling in lower legs and feet, as well as to prevent potentially life-threatening blood clots. By improving blood circulation and preventing blood from pooling, compression socks are able to significantly reduce swelling and edema.
Compression Socks Decrease Risk of Blood Clots and Deep Vein Thrombosis
For frequent travelers, the best compression socks are those that prevent blood clots from forming during long flights. When people spend prolonged periods of time sitting, they are more likely to develop dangerous blood clots in their lower legs which can lead to life-threatening events such as deep vein thrombosis and pulmonary embolism.
Thanks to graduated compression technology, compression socks can prevent blood from pooling in the lower limbs while improving the wearer’s circulation. Ultimately, travelers are less likely to experience these dangerous conditions, particularly during long trips.
In addition, if you have suffered from deep vein thrombosis, wearing compression socks may be prescribed as treatment to prevent complications from occurring. One common complication is post-thrombotic syndrome, which results in lingering pain. The use of compression socks has been shown to decrease pain for these patients.
Compression Socks Prevent Varicose and Spider Veins
A hallmark of growing older is the development of raised, blue veins on the lower legs. Varicose veins are caused by venous insufficiency, meaning that poor circulation reduces the blood’s ability to flow back toward the heart. When venous insufficiency occurs, blood does not return to the heart and instead pools in the veins, causing them to become enlarged. Varicose veins can be dangerous because they increase the risk of developing blood clots and ulcers, and can burst.
While varicose veins are primarily experienced by aging adults, they can also occur in younger individuals. Up to 30% of women develop varicose veins during pregnancy due to hormonal changes that increase blood coagulation. Compression socks are useful for treating and preventing varicose veins because graduated compression prevents blood from pooling in veins while counteracting venous insufficiency.
Compression Socks Increase Muscular Stability
For people who are on their feet all day, such as athletes and those who have jobs that require a lot of walking, muscular vibration (also called oscillation) occurs at a significantly higher rate. Every time the foot strikes the ground, either when walking or running, a load is placed on the muscles. Over time, the muscles continue to move back and forth. This lateral movement reduces stability in the legs and can also result in injury, swelling, and fatigue.
By applying compression to the muscles, lateral movement and oscillation are reduced. In turn, the muscles are provided stability which improves overall efficiency and muscular economy.
Compression Socks Reduce Soreness and Cramping
If you come home from the end of a long day and the first thing you do is sit down and put your feet up, compression socks might be right for you. Athletes, as well as those who work on their feet all day, benefit from compression socks because they reduce associated muscle soreness and cramping. Indeed, the best compression socks make it less tiring for people to be on their feet all day.
There are many people who can benefit from wearing compression socks at work. Nurses, factory workers, teachers, dentists, dental hygienists, flight attendants, and anyone who must stand for prolonged periods of time will experience reduced pain and swelling during and after work, as well as enhanced recovery for the next day. Legs will feel energized and refreshed with the use of compression, instead of tired, sore, and swollen.
Compression Socks Help Injuries Heal
There are numerous injuries that affect the lower legs which can be addressed with the usage of compression. In fact, compression is commonly recommended as a treatment for acute injuries and is part of the RICE acronym, which stands for rest, ice, compression, and elevation. The types of injuries that compression can help to heal include:
Plantar Fasciitis is common among athletes as well as people who spend a lot of time on their feet, such as nurses and factory workers. When the plantar tendon is overworked, it becomes sore and inflamed, causing pain in the foot. Compression socks can help improve the condition of plantar fasciitis by reducing inflammation in the foot and improving circulation, which draws healing blood to the injured area.
Shin splints, also known as medial tibial stress syndrome, are common among athletes, such as runners, due to their continuous foot strikes on hard surfaces. Shin splints are characterized by swelling and inflammation in the inner calf muscle along the tibia. Compression socks help to heal shin splints by reducing swelling and inflammation in the shin while stabilizing and supporting the calf and shin muscles.
Calf Strain or Sprain
Calf sprains or strains can occur at any time and are most common among athletes. A sprain or strain is characterized by damage caused to the calf muscle that results in microscopic tearing. The result is chronic inflammation that remains at the injury site until the area has healed, causing constant swelling and tenderness. Compression socks help calf strains and sprains heal in a timelier manner by stabilizing the muscle, reducing oscillations and vibrations, reducing localized swelling, and increasing circulation for faster healing.
Ankle Sprain or Strain
Ankle sprains and strains can happen to anyone and result in painful, swollen ankles that make it difficult to walk normally and bear weight. The most common treatment for an ankle sprain or strain is RICE. Compression is especially useful because ankle sprains and strains are likely to swell, sometimes doubling the ankle in size. Since circulation is poor in lower limbs, swelling may stay in the area for an extended period of time, which further delays the healing process.
Compression socks, however, reduce swelling and edema, and enhance the return of immune system mediators that caused the initial swelling back to the heart and tissues for reabsorption. Additionally, enhanced circulation in the lower legs helps the ankle to recover.
Compression Socks Help Prevent Injuries
Conversely, since compression socks can help heal injuries, it makes sense they are also useful in preventing injuries, as well. There are numerous reasons why injuries occur in the first place. One reason is overuse, which happens when a muscle is unable to bear the continual load that is placed on it. Compression socks are useful in this instance because they help to support muscles in the lower legs which may prevent these injuries from occurring.
A second reason that injuries occur is because of chronic inflammation, which might be caused by diet, lifestyle, too much exercise, or existing medical conditions. Compression socks help to flush out chronic inflammation and return tissues and muscles to their normal state, thereby preventing injuries from occurring.
Finally, compression socks help to prevent injuries by improving circulation, which ensures that muscles are always able to access fresh, oxygenated blood for healing and repair.
Compression Socks are Useful in Managing, Preventing, and Treating Diseases and Complications
Perhaps the number one reason to wear compression socks is that they can be extremely useful in the management, prevention, and treatment of certain diseases or complications. The most common uses for compression socks include:
Chronic Venous Insufficiency
Chronic venous insufficiency (CVI) occurs when blood pools within the veins. Most commonly, this condition is caused by superficial venous reflux, where functional valves inhibit the return of blood from the veins to the heart. Symptoms include swelling and the formation of ulcers. Compression socks are useful in the treatment and prevention of chronic venous insufficiency by encouraging the flow of blood away from the lower limbs and back to the heart, thereby inhibiting the pooling of blood in the lower limbs.
Venous thromboembolism occurs when a blood clot that has formed within a vein or blood vessel breaks off and travels to the lungs. This condition can be fatal if not treated in a timely manner. One measure commonly used to prevent venous thromboembolism (VTE) is compression socks. Patients that are bedridden are at an increased risk of developing VTE and are common candidates for the use of compression socks as a preventative measure. Compression socks work to prevent VTE by improving venous return and improving circulation, thereby reducing the risk of blood pooling in the lower legs and clotting within a vein or blood vessel.
Lymphedema, which is also commonly called lymphoedema and lymphatic edema, occurs due to swelling in tissues caused by retention of interstitial fluid that is released by the lymphatic system and not returned to the bloodstream. People most commonly affected by lymphedema include cancer patients and those suffering from parasitic infections, as well as genetic disorders. When lymphedema occurs, tissues are at an increased risk of developing infection.
Compression socks are useful for managing lymphedema because they improve circulation while reducing inflammation. By flushing the lower limbs of inflammation and edema, the risk of infection is greatly reduced.
Compression Socks Have No Serious Side Effects
Unlike most medical devices, there are no serious side effects associated with the use of compression socks when the proper fit is attained. Some patients may find the sensation of compression uncomfortable at first; however, as swelling and edema decrease the sensation of discomfort generally diminishes as well. The second most commonly reported “side effect” is difficulty putting on compression socks. This occurrence is due to the tightness of the fibers, which is important for producing the therapeutic compressive quality of the socks. As a medical device that is capable of treating, preventing, and managing a wide array of disease, the relative lack of contraindications associated with the use of compression socks makes their use not only effective, but also safe.
Ultimately, there are many reasons to wear compression socks. The use of compression socks have been scientifically proven as beneficial in many areas. For example, compression socks improve athletic performance by enhancing circulation and blood flow. Compression socks also reduce swelling, inflammation, and edema. Injury and disease can be both treated and prevented with the help of compression socks. Overall, the best compression socks are ones that fit well, have appropriate gradient compression, and are made from high-quality materials.
Compression Socks For Running
The next time you watch a race on television, look at the elite athletes leading the field. Many will be wearing compression socks. You may be asking yourself, “do compression socks for running really make a difference?” The answer is yes. Here, the reasons why runners and athletes should wear compression socks will be discussed.
Why Runners Wear Compression Socks
Why is graduated compression for runners important? Simply put, the faster one can improve circulation of metabolic waste products away from the muscles and toward the heart, the quicker recovery can occur. Poor circulation results in swelling which hinders performance while decreasing muscle recovery following a hard workout or race.
Athletes and Inflammation
For runners and athletes, “inflammation” is a commonly used term. Inflammation is also a reason why compression socks are important for runners. Although inflammation has taken on negative connotations recently, this process is also the natural response of the body to stress caused by intense exercise.
For instance, to grow stronger athletes rely on the tear/repair cycle. After a hard training session, muscles develop harmless microtears. After this damage has been detected, the body’s immune system immediately goes to work to repair these microtears, resulting in overall stronger muscles. White blood cells are sent to the damaged muscles, as well as mediators such as cytokines. This normal (and necessary) immune response results in temporary swelling and soreness. The entire repair process lasts 24–72 hours, depending on the relative severity of the muscular damage. After the repair cycle, muscles are stronger than before.
However, when athletes are training at high intensities, chronic inflammation is more likely to occur. In this instance, the immune system is continually triggered at a faster rate than repair can occur. Chronic inflammation can lead to the feeling of tired, heavy legs as well as chronic soreness, weight gain, and decreased athletic performance. Compression socks can improve the way that runners and athletes feel by naturally reducing inflammation and improving the rate at which white blood cells, localized swelling, and immune system mediators are flushed out of the system.
Running Compression Socks: What to Look For
When choosing the best compression socks for running, there are many important features to consider. First, the footbed should be padded. This padding helps to absorb shock and decrease muscular vibrations while further protecting feet and lower legs.
Calf support is essential, which helps to stabilize the muscles and guard against muscular oscillations. The bands should be comfortable below the knee, and not cut off circulation at this area. If the band cuts into the leg too deeply, venous return can be hindered or cut off altogether, negating the positive effects of compression.
Additionally, compression socks should be the proper fit. Runners should measure the circumference of the largest part of their calves and match this number to the compression socks. Too much or too little compression can both be detrimental, resulting in fewer benefits.
The level of compression in the socks is also important. In general, 20–30 mmHg is recommended for runners as this level of compression is ideal for moderate to severe swelling.
Benefits of Compression Socks for Running
The benefits of running compression socks are practically endless. They include:
Enhanced Athletic Performance
Athletic performance relies on the precise balance of oxygenated blood flow to hard-working muscles and the removal of deoxygenated blood and metabolic waste products, such as lactic acid. As the muscles in a runner’s lower legs continually pound the trail or pavement, their muscles are constantly undergoing the processes of breaking down and recovery. The faster the swelling and inflammation can be removed from the lower legs the quicker fresh blood can replenish tired muscles. Preventing the buildup of lactic acid and edema results in less muscular fatigue and therefore enhanced performance.
Faster Recovery from Hard Workouts and Races
When athletes are training to be in peak condition, the balance between training and recovery is of utmost importance. As legendary running coach Joe Vigil states, “there is no such thing as overtraining, just under-resting.”
Compression socks give athletes a boost in this regard, particularly when proper recovery is not feasible due to full-time jobs and busy schedules. A main principle of recovery is adequate blood flow to fatigued areas of the body. As soon as a workout is complete, inflammation sets in to repair any damage sustained during exercise. While inflammation is a necessary part of the recovery process, the residual effects (i.e., pain and swelling) can be lessened by speeding up the rate at which blood and edema move away from the affected areas. With the help of graduated compression, increased blood flow to the lower legs improves muscle recovery and reduces the sensation of tired and achy legs.
Runners and athletes frequently travel long distances for races and competitions. However, it is well documented that sitting still for long periods of time, particularly during air travel, can lead to blood clots, deep vein thrombosis, pulmonary embolism. Compression socks are proven to reduce the risk of blood clots in the lower legs, keeping athletes safer both before and after competition. Even the most highly trained athletes are at risk of developing this potentially lethal condition, as Serena Williams suffered a pulmonary embolism following a cross-country flight from New York to Los Angeles in 2011.
Decreased Injury Risk
Numerous running injuries can develop due to insufficient blood flow and circulation in the lower legs. For instance, plantar fasciitis, Achilles tendonitis, shin splints, and calf strains are all injuries where unsupported muscles, chronic inflammation, and lack of circulation are risk factors.
When wearing compression socks, runners can reduce their risk of developing these injuries because enhanced venous return reduces the amount of time that metabolic waste products and deoxygenated blood pool near these commonly used muscle groups. Additionally, injury risk is reduced because enhanced circulation keeps swelling and edema from forming and improves recovery times after difficult exercise.
Enhanced Warmth on Cold Runs
Every runner will experience a dreadfully cold run or race. Compression socks for running not only provide an additional layer of warmth against a runner’s skin, but also protect vulnerable muscles.
Compression socks increase warmth by drawing oxygen-rich blood flow to areas that traditionally suffer from poor circulation. Often, runners experience extreme cold in their feet because of lack of blood flow to lower extremities on cold days when the body preferentially keeps more important organs (such as the heart) from freezing. Runners who wear compression socks enjoy extra protection from bitter cold winds and weather.
In addition, some runners, such as Olympian Kara Goucher, prefer full knee mobility on cold days. For instance, running tights can feel restrictive during track workouts during winter. However, by pairing compression socks with shorts, legs can remain mostly covered and warm while the knee has full range of motion.
Improved Muscular Stability
Compression socks also provide muscular stability in the lower legs of athletes. When a person is running, he or she is exerting as much four times his or her body weight in force onto the feet and lower legs. Over the course of many miles, this force leads to jostling, lateral motion, and decreased stability in these muscles. These muscular vibrations and lateral oscillations decrease the amount time it takes for an athlete to fatigue while decreasing muscular efficiency.
However, compression socks reduce the overall jostling experienced by these muscles, which in turn can reduce injury risk and lead to enhanced athletic performance.
Less Muscular Damage
Studies have shown the use of compression socks reduces the amount of muscular damage sustained during athletic activity. A recent study was performed during the Two Oceans ultra in South Africa. Runners who wore compression socks during this race were found to have less muscular damage than those who wore regular knee-highs or crew socks. In addition, recovery times were significantly shorter for those wearing compression socks. Perhaps the most impressive result of this study was that runners wearing compression socks ran an average of 12 minutes faster than those who did not.
Less Cramping and Muscle Soreness
During a run or athletic activity, muscle cramping and soreness are inevitable for many people. While the causes of cramping are generally unknown (some researchers theorize that it can be due to poor hydration, poor nutrition, electrolyte imbalance, and muscular weaknesses), compression socks can be used to decrease cramping and soreness.
The secret lies in graduated compression. Muscle cramping and soreness can be delayed or reversed altogether thanks to increased blood flow to the areas of the body that frequently cramp, such as calf and feet muscles. During exercise, compression socks constrict the veins and arteries in the lower legs to promote better blood flow. This increased blood flow draws oxygenated blood to the muscles, while also enhancing venous return, or, the rate at which deoxygenated blood returns to the heart for reoxygenation. Since blood flow is naturally increased during exercise, the use of compression socks further enhances blood flow and prevents cramping.
After exercise, muscle soreness is prevented or decreased due to the same principle. While blood flow is not enhanced to nearly the same degree, the improvement in venous return speeds the recovery process by ensuring metabolic waste products and inflammation are removed from the area and replaced with nutrient-rich, oxygenated blood that will speed the healing process.
Faster Injury Recovery
There are numerous injuries that commonly plague runners, such as shin splints, metatarsal stress fractures, plantar fasciitis, Achilles tendonitis, and calf sprains/strains. Compression socks are a key component in speeding along injury recovery. Many people are well familiar with the acronym RICE for running injuries, which stands for rest, ice, compression, and elevation.
Compression helps to speed injury recovery because of the enhanced blood flow drawn to the area. For example, a stress fracture in a metatarsal heals much more slowly than a femoral stress fracture, mainly due to the discrepancies in blood flow. An area such as the femur is surrounded by more blood vessels and mitochondria, which encourage repair.
The foot, on the other hand, is farther from the heart and does not have access to the same amount of blood flow. Compression socks improve blood circulation by improving venous return. By drawing blood to the area and returning metabolic waste products, reducing inflammation, and ridding the area of deoxygenated blood, injury time will be reduced.
Compression Socks Provide Protection to Trail Runners
Besides the numerous physiological benefits that compression socks provide to runners, compression socks also provide protection. Trail runners face many dangers during runs, including thorns, poison ivy, increased risk of falling, and trail overgrowth. The tight weave of compression socks protects these runners from cuts, abrasions, and potential poisoning from toxic plants.
Are Compression Socks Only for Runners?
Are runners the only athletes that can benefit from compression? The answer is no. All athletes who are on their feet during competition can benefit from compression gear. For instance, basketball players and volleyball players often suffer from shin splints. Compression socks can prevent these injuries from occurring by providing stability to lower leg muscles and reducing the effect of continual impact. Tennis players, soccer players, baseball players (among others) can all reap the benefits of compression.
Additional Benefits of Compression Socks
Are there benefits of compression outside of athletic activities? The answer is a resounding yes! There are numerous medical benefits for wearing compression socks.
Reduction of Tired/Achy Legs
Even non-athletes can reap the benefits of compression for the reduction of tired and achy legs. Workers who are on their feet all day, such as flight attendants, waitresses, factory workers, and nurses, among others, can all benefit from the use of compression socks.
In addition, people who are confined to a desk will benefit from the increased circulation that compression socks provide. Not only is the risk of blood clots reduced, but less swelling and edema will also occur.
Varicose Vein Prevention
Varicose veins are large, raised veins on the legs that can be painful and unsightly, as well as medically dangerous. Varicose veins occur when circulation is poor, and venous return is hindered. Since blood is unable to return to the heart for recirculation, blood pools in the legs and becomes trapped in the vein, causing enlargement. These enlarged veins increase the risk of burst arteries, blood clots, and ulcers. While activity helps to prevent varicose veins, this condition can occur even in young, healthy, and athletic people.
Compression socks reduce the risk of varicose veins by improving venous return and ensuring blood flow continues to the heart.
During pregnancy, women experience swelling and edema of the lower legs, no matter their fitness level prior to becoming pregnant. Swelling and edema are not only uncomfortable, but can lead to dangerous medical events, such as blood clots and pulmonary embolism. By improving venous return and enhancing circulation, compression socks can either be used to support women during both rest and activity.
Ultimately, compression socks are beneficial for multiple reasons. Most notably, the best running compression socks help reduce muscle soreness, improve muscle recovery, prevent extensive muscle damage, and enhance athletic performance. Compression socks can be worn at any stage of athletic activity such as before, during, or after. For athletes that travel frequently, compression socks are important because they have been shown to prevent the risk of blood clots and deep vein thrombosis.
Additionally, compression socks are useful in the prevention and treatment of venous and circulatory diseases such as varicose veins. When purchasing compression socks for running, athletes should look for a padded footbed, proper compression grade, the right fit, calf support, and graduated compression. Elite athletes all over the world, such as Paula Radcliffe, Meb Keflizhighi, and Kara Goucher utilize compression socks for training and racing, which should come as no surprise knowing the extensive benefits of running compression socks.