What’s the Science Behind Compression Stockings?

person putting on compression stockings

Table of Contents

  • ‌How Do Compression Stockings Work?
  • Why Are They Effective?
  • What Conditions Can They Help With?
  • Who Should (and Shouldn’t) Wear Them?
  • Learning More

Compression stockings come highly recommended by many different experts, from vein care specialists to distance running coaches. They’re often a part of aftercare plans for people recovering from surgery and are popular among people who struggle with the discomfort of varicose veins.

It’s clear that gradient compression stockings are good for your circulation. But, why, and how do compression stockings work? Here’s what you need to know about these helpful circulation aids.

‌How Do Compression Stockings Work?

Worn on the lower legs, gradient compression stockings help blood flow up to the heart. The veins in your lower legs work hard to push blood up, with the help of valves that close against backward blood flow.

If there’s any kind of weakness or injury to those veins or valves, they may not work as efficiently, causing blood to flow back toward the feet or pool inside the veins.

Enter gradient compression stockings. Made to fit like knee-high socks, these stockings put gentle pressure on the legs to push the blood in the right direction. They don’t interfere with the flow of blood down the leg — gravity has that covered — but they do help to keep blood from pooling where it shouldn’t.

As the name suggests, the pressure in a gradient compression stocking isn’t uniform. There’s more pressure around the feet and ankles, and gradually less in the higher parts of the stocking. Most go up to the knee, yet, some go all the way to the mid-thigh or higher.

Why Are They Effective?

The gradient pressure in a compression stocking gently encourages blood in your leg veins to flow upward toward the heart, while simultaneously preventing it from flowing backward and pooling. It’s a bit like squeezing a toothpaste tube from the bottom up, only it’s constant.

This constant support helps in two ways. First, gradient compression stockings help the veins stay healthy by preventing blood pooling. When your leg veins are healthy, you’re less likely to develop new or worsening varicose and spider veins.

Second, because they help with blood flow, gradient compression stockings reduce the risk of blood clotting in the legs. Blood clots are rare for most people, but some people are at a higher risk due to their medical history, family history, or medication needs.

What Conditions Can They Help With?

Gradient compression stockings help people with and without medical conditions. Nurses often wear them to counteract the pressure of standing all day. Pilots and frequent travelers wear them to maintain circulation during long flights.

Compression stockings are also medically prescribed and recommended, often for people with vein and circulation issues.

Varicose and Spider Veins

Many people wear gradient compression stockings for varicose veins or spider veins, which may develop due to weakened or damaged leg veins. The valves in these weakened or damaged veins don’t function properly, so the blood slips backward and pools inside those veins, creating more damage.

Varicose and spider veins are the visible results of this cycle. Spider veins are less prominent since they don’t protrude and aren’t usually painful. Yet, they can make many people self-conscious. Using compression stockings for spider veins can help to slow their progression and keep legs looking healthy longer.

Varicose veins bulge above the skin and can be painful. If you have varicose veins, wearing compression stockings may help to reduce your discomfort in the short term and keep them from getting worse.

Post-Surgery Recovery

After undergoing various types of surgery, many people can’t or shouldn’t move around as much as they usually do. Some end up stuck in bed for long periods of time.

Prolonged immobility may increase a person’s risk of blood clots, especially in the legs. It’s relatively rare, but doctors recommend gradient compression stockings as a safeguard just in case.

Pregnancy

Pregnancy puts a lot of extra pressure on the leg veins, so much so that up to 40% of pregnant women develop varicose veins. Compression stockings support the leg veins by counteracting the extra weight. This can potentially improve comfort levels and reduce the risk of vein damage.

Edema and Lymphedema

Gradient compression stockings also encourage the flow of a fluid called lymph, which “washes” the body’s tissues by bringing in white blood cells and carrying away waste.

In people with lymphedema, this fluid collects in the legs and causes swelling. Gradient compression stockings can help to control this swelling when used as a long-term maintenance tool.

They can also help to correct general leg edema, which is the pooling of fluid that leaks out of tiny capillaries in the legs.

Who Should (and Shouldn’t) Wear Them?

Compression stockings are safe and effective for most people, but there are some medical conditions in which they can do more harm than good such as:

  • ‌Sensory problems like peripheral neuropathy, which damages the nerves of the extremities and makes it hard to feel if the stockings are too tight
  • ‌Dermatitis and other skin infections, which can get worse if a compression stocking presses too firmly
  • ‌ Peripheral artery disease, which impairs blood flow. Gradient compression stockings can inhibit oxygen delivery, worsening this disease.
  • ‌Dramatically unusual leg shape or size
  • ‌Allergies to the stocking fabric

‌If you’re not sure whether you should wear gradient compression stockings, consult with a vein specialist first.

Learning More

A qualified medical professional is the best person to advise on gradient compression stockings. If your concerns relate to varicose veins, especially if those veins interfere with your daily life, don’t hesitate to reach out to a vein specialist.

My Vein Treatment’s specialist locator tool can help you find a qualified professional in your area. Reach out today and learn how gradient compression stockings can help you, and what else you can do to manage your varicose veins.

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