You visit the doctor and he tells you to buy compression socks. Your runner friend suggests the same thing. Now what?
Whatever the reason you decide to try them out, you’re going to need to do your research first. Wearing the wrong type of socks at the wrong time can result in serious injury or can have no effect at all. Keep reading for a beginner’s guide on compression socks, types, and uses.
When shopping for compression stockings/socks, you’ll soon learn that there are LOTS of varieties that vary by style, size, material, color, length, and compression level. The type you buy depends on what you’re trying to achieve. If you suffer pain from any of the following, you should visit a doctor for sock advice:
If you’re looking for socks to combat general fatigue or to help during exercise, you don’t need to visit a doctor first. In addition to the prevention of certain illnesses, this type of sock is commonly used in the running community. Runners claim they are able to achieve faster times because their legs stay energized during long runs. Hikers enjoy the same feeling as well as the added benefit of a barrier against small injuries like scratches and bug bites.
Material: Not all socks are created equal. Material varies by brand. It’s important to pay attention to the material when deciding which socks to buy. The three most common materials are Lycra, spandex, and rubber. The only reason to buy one material over another is for personal comfort. Try a few and wear whatever you like best.
Compression stockings (image above) are usually made from a combination of nylon and cotton. Typically used for medical purpose, they are a special type of elastic hosiery that can reduce the diameter of swollen veins, increase blood flow, and promote valve effectiveness. Either knee- or thigh-high, these stockings employ strong elastics to apply pressure to ankles, legs, and feet. This pressure increases circulation and prevents blood clots. Some individuals use the stockings to slenderize their legs.
Style: Another important variable to consider is sock style. Styles range from ankle-high to full height options that look similar to traditional pantyhose. The reason you need compression will determine sock height. For example, those with knee pain will want to choose thigh-high socks. If you’re trying to fit into a tight dress, you will want to choose full-length stockings. If you suffer heel pain from plantar fasciitis, you’re going to want a sort of foot sleeve variety (image at left). This is to be worn during the day just like a normal sock.
There are even footless and toeless varieties of stockings/socks to help you feel comfortable in any outfit or shoe.
There are four basic levels of compression measured in mmHg (millimeters of mercury). The higher the number, the tighter the compression.
Mild compression (8-15 mmHg) can provide relief for tired and achy legs as well as help you maintain energetic and healthy legs. These socks are also used to prevent fatigue during and after long periods of standing/sitting. A mild compression level can reduce minor swelling in the ankles, feet, and legs as well as be useful during pregnancy to prevent the formation of spider and varicose veins. This level is perfect for waitresses and runners.
Moderate compression (15-20 mmHg) can prevent and relieve moderate spider and varicose veins. These socks can also relieve achy, tired legs, help reduce swelling in the ankles, feet, and legs, and help to prevent DVT (deep vein thrombosis) AKA economy class syndrome. Moderate compression is useful during pregnancy and post-sclerotherapy to prevent the formation of spider and varicose veins. Moderate compression is the idea level for individuals during long travels (such as a transoceanic flight) and for marathon runners.
Seek a doctor’s advice before wearing any compression level higher than moderate.
Firm compression (20-30 mmHg) can help prevent and relieve severe varicose veins during or not during pregnancy, after surgery, and post-sclerotherapy. Firm compression can also help to:
Treat moderate/severe lymphatic edema
Manage ulcers and PTS (post-thrombotic syndrome) manifestations
Relieve superficial thrombophlebitis
Prevent a sudden fall in blood pressure upon standing (orthostatic hypotension)
Extra firm/heavy compression (30-40 mmHg) can relieve and prevent serious cases of varicose veins. This level of compression is used to treat severe edema/lymphedema and during post-sclerotherapy and post-surgical treatment to discourage the reappearance of spider/varicose veins. Extra firm compression can reduce instances of postural hypotension and orthostatic hypotension, help manage PTS manifestations and venous ulcers, and prevent DVT.
The use of this type of sock for running is a relatively new fad said to help runners achieve quicker times and a quicker recovery.
Manufactures claim that tight socks can increase oxygen delivery, prevent cramps, decrease lactic acid, and minimize muscle fatigue. There is little to no scientific evidence that these socks actually help runners achieve better times, but many runners swear by them. The main benefit seems to be in recovery after long races.
American Chris Solinksy wore compression socks when he achieved the world-record (27:00) for the 10,000m run. His record has since been beat, but according to Solinksy: “I found I was able to come off the workouts much, much quicker.”
It seems that while running time might not be affected by the socks, recovery time will be. Doctors recommend wearing the socks not only during the race, but during the following day as well. Studies show that compression socks can aid in lymph removal during recovery after a long run.
Make sure to seek a doctor’s advice before buying compression stockings/socks. Only a professional can recommend the proper compression level and advise when and how long to wear the socks. If you aren’t wearing the socks to treat a medical condition, wear the socks when you’re on your feet/active and take them off at the end of the day. Do not wear compression socks when elevating the legs or when sleeping. A good rule of thumb is to take them off if your legs/feet are not below your heart.