Compression socks can help support healthy circulation in many people. But when used incorrectly, they can cause side effects, including cutting off circulation and skin irritation.

Compression socks are a popular treatment for tired legs and swelling in your calves. By supporting healthy circulation, these garments can increase your energy levels and lower your risk of blood clots. They can benefit people who work standing up, distance runners, and older adults.

But compression socks aren’t for everyone, and research suggests that using them incorrectly can be harmful.

This article will cover the basics of what you need to know about using compression socks, and how to make sure you’re not doing more harm than good by wearing them.

Your circulatory system pumps fresh, oxygen-rich blood through your veins from your heart. Once the oxygen is distributed in your body, the blood is depleted and returns through a different set of veins to get replenished.

The blood in the veins of your legs often has to work against gravity to return to the heart. For this reason, veins and arteries in your legs are more prone to growing weaker and becoming inefficient. That’s where compression socks and stockings come in.

Compression socks apply pressure at your ankles and calves. This gentle, continuous squeeze on the bottom of your circulatory system helps support your veins as they send blood back up to your heart.

Compression socks are recommended by prescription for people with certain medical conditions and family histories. They’re also popular over the counter for people who stand a lot during the day, frequent fliers, and those over age 65.

In general, compression socks are safe to wear when done so correctly. That doesn’t mean that they’re safe for everyone in every situation. Some people shouldn’t use compression socks, such as those with delicate or easily irritated skin. It’s also important that compression socks are properly fitted.

Here are some potential risks to be aware of:

Can cut off your circulation

Compression socks and stockings are meant to provide continuous pressure that supports circulation. But when they aren’t fitted properly, they can have the opposite effect and prevent blood from circulating in your legs.

Can chafe and bruise your legs

If you have dry skin or are traveling in climates with dry air (like on an airplane), your skin is more likely to chafe or scrape. People who have a compromised skin barrier may experience cuts, scrapes, and bruises from compression socks. Note that when compression socks or stockings fit properly, this is far less likely to happen.

Can cause itching, redness, and irritation

Compression socks can aggravate skin irritation and also cause itching. When compression socks are improperly fitted, redness and temporary dents in your skin may appear on your legs at the edge of the sock’s fabric.

Follow a doctor’s recommendations

Compression sock and stocking manufacturers tend to report that it’s safe to wear their products all day and all night. Your own needs will vary according to your medical history and the reason you’re wearing compression socks.

Talk with a doctor about how often to use compression socks and how long you can safely keep them on.

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The safest way to use compression socks is to follow a healthcare provider’s guidance.

If you’ve been wearing compression socks that you’ve purchased over the counter, or if you want to add compression socks to your routine, talk to a doctor. They can provide recommendations for wear and a prescription for medical-grade prescription socks, if needed.

Remember that most side effects from wearing compression socks only happen when you’re not wearing them correctly.

Best practices for compression socks

Here are some best practices for safely wearing compression socks:

  • Get your compression socks fitted properly by a professional.
  • If you gain or lose weight, get fitted again so that you’re wearing the correct size.
  • Follow instructions from sock or stocking manufacturers and your healthcare provider.
  • Check your skin for changes like redness, dents, dryness, and chafing between every wear.
  • Hand-wash compression socks and hang them to dry to prevent warping or changes in the fabric.
  • Dispose of compression socks after 30 or so wears, or as soon as you notice them losing their stretch.
  • Take your compression socks off every day and replace with a clean, dry pair so that the socks don’t adhere to your skin and become difficult to remove.

Compression socks can help treat and prevent deep vein thrombosis and blood clots. But that doesn’t mean you should ignore the signs and symptoms of those conditions. Contact your healthcare provider right away if you notice any of the following:

  • swollen, hard veins
  • tenderness or loss of circulation that persists in one or both legs
  • leg cramps that persist in one or both legs
  • redness or warmth in one area of your vein
  • a weak pulse or a pulse that feels out of rhythm
  • bluish or purple skin
  • difficulty breathing or rapid breathing

If you’ve been wearing your compression socks for an extended period of time and have trouble removing them, you may need to go to your doctor for assistance.

There are three primary types of compression socks:

  • nonmedical support hosiery
  • graduated compression socks
  • anti-embolism compression socks

Nonmedical support hosiery

Nonmedical support hosiery are what you most likely think of when you hear the words “compression socks.” These types of compression garments are available for anyone to buy over the counter or online.

You can choose the level of pressure that these socks apply based on your comfort level. Nonmedical support hosiery are widely available nationwide and come in many varieties of lengths, fabrics, and patterns.

Graduated compression socks

Graduated compression socks are only available by prescription from your doctor. This type of garment requires a professional fitting, where you’ll be advised on how to use them safely. Your provider should be clear about why you’re using them, how long you should wear them, and other safety factors.

Anti-embolism compression socks

Anti-embolism compression socks are prescribed for individuals who are at increased risk for pulmonary embolisms. Typically, people who are prescribed this type of garment have limited mobility.

Compression socks are typically safe to wear if you follow a doctor’s guidance and the manufacturer’s instructions. Overusing compression socks and wearing them incorrectly can break your skin and create conditions where an infection can start.

You shouldn’t leave the same pair of compression socks on for days at a time, and you should ask a doctor about the length of wear time recommended for treating your symptoms.

If you’re using compression socks frequently, consider getting a prescription for medical-grade ones. If side effects like broken or bruised skin occur, discontinue using the socks and let your healthcare provider know.