Sometimes it seems that compression socks are just another fad. If you go to a gym regularly or any other place where people are exercising, you may see some folks wearing knee high compressions socks. They come in various snazzy colors and designs. Sometimes, you see people just walking around with them on, just in case.
Is this something that we can take seriously? Or, is it better to just ignore the trend as the latest thing? What does the research say?
Just to be clear, right now I am talking about compression socks to help with athletic endeavors that mostly involve running (although I see people using them during strength training as well).
Later I will get to the part about wearing them for long plane flights. This is clearly NOT an athletic endeavor, but more of a marathon sitting session. Some might argue that sitting that much is more difficult and dangerous than being up and about. And they would be right. But I digress.
If you read a lot of stuff about this, some of the research seems to be contradictory. Sometimes they find that compression socks help with performance, recovery, and performance later. Other times research finds that there is no effect whatsoever. But you do see a trend. And that is this: For long events of running like a marathon or soccer match, compression socks come in handy. That is, they help with performance at the time, and seem to make the aftereffects of the event less painful.
Once you delve into why this would be the case, the benefits become clear. If the sock has more compression around the ankle than at the top (which is the criteria needed for success), it means that the sock helps deliver more blood back to the heart so that it can then pick up more oxygen in the lungs. As we all know, more oxygen makes for better performance. Just ask any professional football player sucking oxygen on the sidelines between plays.
The increased circulation also helps afterwards to remove waste products and speed up recovery in the muscles. If you know much about how the body works, this would seem fairly intuitive.
One other thing. Often you see professional basketball players wearing what looks like compression sleeves on their arms. That speaks to the other potential reason that these can be helpful. When muscles are compressed during exercise, they theoretically vibrate less, and so would not get as many of the little muscle tears that come with exertion. This could be helpful for performance, and also for recovery.
History and the Medical Profession
Let’s take a different tack for a minute. Just for fun, let’s take a look at history, the medical profession, and the modern development of long plane flights.
Some say that compression socks were being used even back in Neolithic days (that would be around 10,000 years ago). Cave paintings apparently show many soldiers with bandaged lower legs. Perhaps this was to help their stamina in battle?
Next up: Hippocrates. He was doing his thing back around 400 BC. Apparently there are reports that he was using compression to prevent blood pooling in patients’ legs.
Actually, the medical profession has long been using compression to help people with varicose veins, diabetes, deep vein thrombosis, leg swelling, and various circulatory problems. It’s also used for some post-surgical patients who are bed-ridden.
Now, to plane travel. There is a definitive study that was done in Italy and the UK which showed that in a group of 1237 people, 2 people wearing compression socks on long plane flights ended up with a deep vein thrombosis, but 46 NOT wearing compression socks suffered a deep vein thrombosis. This, coupled with several tragic deaths from thrombosis on long plane flights, has led to the recommendation that we all wear them if the flight is longer than 3 hours.
Finally, there is the fact that so far nothing adverse comes from wearing compression socks, as long as they are the right tightness and have more compression around the ankle than at the top. Just so you know, they come in four different compressions which are for different needs. The lowest compression, 15 mmHG is used for people who are on their feet a lot, or for the above-mentioned runners and athletes. 15-20 mmHG is recommended for preventing deep vein thrombosis on the plane or elsewhere, and 20-30 mmHG is considered “medical grade” for severe leg issues. Above that is 30+ mmHG, sometimes used for post-surgical patients.
BOTTOM LINE: Let’s just say that even though some of the research is inconclusive, there’s many potential reasons to wear compressions socks. And, very little harm will come from doing so.
All the best
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