A relatively new treatment for sore muscles and aching joints that squeezes problem areas is in the midst of a major expansion.
Compression therapy, which utilizes garments like shirts, leggings, and stockings, is projected to continue to rise in popularity through 2020.
A recent study from Persistence Market Research predicts the global compression therapy industry will expand at a compounded annual growth rate of 5.2 percent between 2014 and 2020.
The study concluded that the industry, which was valued at $2.38 billion in 2014, will balloon to $3.23 billion in 2020.
While its products are sold around the world, the compression therapy market is dominated by the United States and Canada. North America contributed $1.1 billion in 2014, approximately 46 percent of the global market.
Effectiveness Is Disputed
The reasoning behind compression therapy is straightforward. Compression prevents blood from pooling in the body, which results in better blood circulation. Garments can be designed to apply different amounts of pressure to optimize circulation.
A second theory behind the benefits of compression therapy is that compression reduces the vibration of muscles during activity. That vibration can be thought of as light trauma, which induces delayed muscle soreness. This treatment, supporters say, can even help with ailments such as deep vein thrombosis and diabetic foot ulcers.
Proponents of compression therapy and garments say the popularity of these techniques is surging because of increases in the amount of people with diabetes as well as an aging population and more frequent sports injuries.
However, despite the rising popularity, there is debate about the efficacy of compression therapy.
In a statement, the National Athletic Trainers’ Association (NATA) stated that while many studies have been conducted on the benefits of compression clothing during activities, overall the studies are inconclusive on the actual benefits.
Furthermore, the study stated, “Inadequate reimbursement policies and risk of complications associated with compression therapy devices are some of the major restraints for the compression therapy market.”
NATA noted that compression therapy may prevent excessive muscle vibration and reduce fatigue as well as result in delayed onset muscle soreness.
Companies Defend Products
Companies like California-based IntelliSkin developed a patented technology that uses compression to improve posture and alignment by signaling core muscles to align the wearer’s shoulders, spine, and trunk.
IntelliSkin officials say their claims are backed by reviews from researchers at the University of California, Irvine, and the Andrews Research and Education Institute.
Another study from Saint Mary’s College in Moraga, California, found that compression socks reduced heart rates during exercise as well as lactate values and increased oxygen saturation. The study received product support from Zoot Sports, an athletic gear supplier.
The study looked at data from 16 college-age students separated into two groups. One group wore compression socks and the other didn’t. Researchers then analyzed data from the group during exercise at mild altitude and then at no altitude.
“Close inspection and interpretation of the descriptive data suggests a trend for several positive effects from wearing the compression socks,” said researchers. “We believe it is fair to cautiously conclude that the compression socks did provide some benefits compared to not wearing them in this study. Lower heart rates and higher oxygen saturation coupled with lower post exercise lactate values would surely lead to improved performance and recovery from both single and multiple days of moderate intensity physical activity.”
The study did not find a difference in soreness between the groups.
Another study from French researchers did find a 28 percent reduction in delayed onset muscle soreness in groups wearing compression socks after exercise. The compression sock group also had accelerated muscle force recovery a day earlier than the control.
And while celebrities like Mets pitchers Dillon Gee and Bobby Parnell may be wearing compression garments for athletic use, the industry’s success can also be attributed to more medically therapeutic tactics.
Runners Weigh In
While compression socks have been shown to reduce leg volume, like in this 2013 study, they have also been shown to fail to reduce leg complaints in runners.
A study of 15 recreational runners found that complaints remained the same in compression sock and non-compression sock groups.
“The [socks] prevented an increase in leg volume just after a running exercise,” the study said. “However, this result was not accompanied by a reduction in subjective leg complaints reported on a questionnaire. The practical significance and implications of the present findings remain to be established.”
For now, the scientific ambiguity behind the efficacy of compression therapy doesn’t seem to be hurting the growth of the industry, according to the Persistence study.