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Compression therapy uses controlled pressure to increase blood flow in your legs and improve blood flow to the heart. At the same time, it supports your veins and decreases swelling.
Types of compression
- Compression stockings are the most common mode of compression therapy.
- Compression wraps or bandages are also common options.
- Other methods include mechanical (pneumatic) compression devices, such as a wearable compression boot or compressed air device for use at home or a clinic.
Compression stockings or socks are the standard, well-researched treatment to:
- manage lymphedema (swelling) and pain in the legs
- help wound healing, specifically ulcers
- manage vein problems
- prevent blood clots after surgery
A more recent use for compression therapy is to aid in athletic performance or workout recovery. Research on athletic use has had mixed results, though.
The short answer: Yes
Compression therapy works and can improve the quality of life for people with many conditions. Doctors often prescribe it to prevent venous insufficiency from becoming more serious.
Here’s why it works:
- Correct pressure. Compression therapy uses the right type of compression for the particular condition being treated.
- The right time and use. The prescribed compression is used consistently for best results.
It’s important to check with your doctor about the level of compression therapy you may need.
Clinicians can help:
- measure your legs to fit stockings correctly
- show you how to put them on and remove them properly
- prescribe a specific level of compression or wrapping
- give you a schedule for wearing the stockings or for using a compression device
Humans have used compression therapy to help heal wounds or inflammation since
Today, different grades of compression stockings are available, ranging from over-the-counter support hose to prescription devices. The severity and type of your condition determine the amount of compression you need.
Compression therapy is well researched and has proven benefits in providing relief and preventing more serious problems. Some benefits include:
- prevention of leg swelling for people who stand or sit for long periods of time, like during a long flight
- management of varicose veins
- management of varicose veins and other leg symptoms during pregnancy
- prevention of venous thromboembolism in people who are immobile
- improved healing of leg ulcers
- prevention of leg ulcers coming back
- maintenance therapy for lymphedema
- improvement of chronic venous insufficiency and ulcer recurrence in older adults
The amount of compression can vary
It’s important to check with your doctor to make sure that you’re using the right stockings or other medical compression device.
Doctors mainly prescribe compression therapy for “venous disease and lymphatic disease, sometimes with overlying congestive heart failure,” Dr. David G. Armstrong, professor of surgery at the Keck School of Medicine of the University of Southern California, tells Healthline.
Below are some common conditions treated with compression therapy.
Chronic venous insufficiency
One of the common conditions treated with compression therapy is poor blood flow, known as chronic venous insufficiency (CVI).
CVI is often associated with:
- varicose veins
- blood clots
Edema is fluid collection that causes swelling in the legs, ankles, or other areas. It can have many causes, including:
- varicose veins
- sitting and standing for long periods of time
Support hose or compression stockings can help. A
Deep vein thrombosis
Deep vein thrombosis (DVT) develops when a blood clot forms in one of the veins, often in a leg. It’s considered a serious condition, as a clot can travel to the lungs and become life threatening.
Risk factors for DVT include:
- prolonged inactivity
Your doctor will likely prescribe compression stockings as a preventive measure. If you can’t walk, they may prescribe a compression boot.
Diabetes is a common cause of leg ulcers, which are open sores or wounds on the legs. Leg ulcers also associated with varicose veins and poor blood circulation.
To treat your leg ulcers, your doctor may prescribe:
- an ointment to heal the sore
- a special compression bandage
- compression stockings to prevent recurrence
“Most compression garments are below-knee and closed-toe,” Armstrong says. “These are what we usually recommend for most patients. The level of compression depends on the degree of disease… or the ability for the patient to apply the stocking.”
“The good news here,” Armstrong says, “is that there are several kinds of ‘donning aids’ that help to make it a little easier to apply the compression socks.”
Aids range from rubber or silicone gloves that give you a super grip to pull your stockings up to wire frames that hold the stocking open while you slip your foot in.
Katherine Jackson, MHS, the lymphedema program coordinator at NorthShore Rehab Services in Evanston, Illinois, tells Healthline that “if stockings are too hard to don/doff, many patients will choose Velcro strapping–containment systems as an alternative.”
Sometimes when compression is needed to treat a health condition, compression stockings are ruled out for a variety of reasons. In these cases, a doctor may recommend using a compression boot.
Jackson says people complain that compression garments are “too hot, unsightly, cause binding or chafing, or are too difficult to don and doff.”
What is a compression boot?
Compression boots are inflatable sleeves for the legs that fill with air and squeeze your legs to increase blood flow.
Your doctor will advise you on how long and how often to wear the compression boots.
Pneumatic compression devices use an air pump and inflatable garment to create intermittent compression for your legs or other body parts.
Many kinds of devices are available commercially, ranging in price from about $100 to $1,000 to $2,000.
Armstrong tells Healthline that compression “boots and machines can be used for persons with severe lymphatic or venous disease [and] can very effectively reduce swelling.”
“However,” he adds, “these are ideally supported with stockings during the times they’re not using the device.”
Before using these devices for swelling or pain, talking to your doctor is key. They can:
- determine what the cause and prescribe an appropriate remedy
- instruct you in the proper use of a compression boot or device for your condition
- advise on how often and how long to use it
Compression stockings and garments for athletes have become increasingly popular. Compression therapy is thought to improve performance, reduce soreness after exercise, and reduce the risk of blood clots.
Research studies show mixed results. One of the difficulties in measuring benefits is that athletes use many types of stockings and other garments with different levels of compression.
This was the case for different levels of compression. The study authors noted it’s not known yet why this happens.
A 2019 study found positive effects on performance and on recovery from wearing compression tights during exercise. Study authors noted the mechanism is unclear.
“There are many people who wear compression garments to support their legs during athletic activity,” Armstrong says.
“Most of the evidence I’m aware of to support faster recovery or reduced soreness is not as strong as what we’ve discussed above [for medical uses of compression therapy]. However, I would say that ‘your mileage may vary,’” he explained.
Using compression therapy for sports
Many elite and amateur athletes incorporate compression therapy after performance with a pressure device.
According to a 2014 article by a sports physiologist who directed the U.S. Olympic Committee Recovery Center in Colorado, compression therapy might help recovery without the need for ice or stretching. (More research is needed to explore this claim, though.)
Interested in adding compression therapy to your sports practice? Ask yourself:
- Do you have a condition that compression is not right for? If you want to use a compression device for athletic purposes, make sure you have no medical contraindications (more on this later).
- Talk with your doctor about using compression. They can also advise you on how often and for how long you should use a compression device.
One of the early companies involved in athletic compression therapy is Norma-tec. Its compression garment resembles a space suit and sells for around $1,000 for a legs-only version. The full-body version costs about $1,900.
Before you purchase a compression device for home use, try one out first. The following places may have one you can try:
- physical therapy clinic
- chiropractic office
- recovery or cryotherapy center
Retail compression services
Here’s what you can expect:
- Therapy. The compression device is used for about 30 minutes at a time. You’ll sit in a lounge chair with your legs elevated. Depending on the type of device, you’ll feel a pulsing of pressure and then release.
- Cost. You can purchase a membership, typically around $300 per month, that will allow you to use the compression machine daily. The cost may vary by geographic location.
In some cases, compression therapy isn’t advised.
“Most frequently this is when a person has significant enough disease to where the compression applied from a garment might impede flow. That is why it is so important for someone who has swelling to work with a team of clinicians — like their family doc, podiatric surgeon, vascular surgeon, cardiologist, and other organ-specific specialties,” Armstrong explains.
“It doesn’t stop there, though,” Armstrong adds. “Physical therapy and nursing are two other critical clinicians that can help get you into the right device at the right time.”
When to avoid
If any of the following apply to you, avoid compression therapy altogether, or speak to your doctor first:
- a skin condition that makes skin fragile
- open sores
- a leg shape or size that keeps compression gear from safely fitting
- lack of sensation in the area
- severe peripheral neuropathy
- peripheral arterial disease
If you stand up all day at work or sit at a desk all day, compression stockings can be a big help in keeping you pain-free and comfortable.
You don’t need a prescription for mild compression stockings or compression socks.
You may also want to explore other medical possibilities, such as lymphatic drainage therapy.
If you’re an athlete or dancer and want to boost your performance and recovery, compression therapy may help. You can wear a compression garment when you perform, or after exercise.