Safety / Injuries
Considering Compression Gear
What it Is, When to Use it, How to Size it and How to Wear it
Compression gear seems to be more popular than ever in athletic wear these days. You’ve probably seen them without knowing. That sleeve-like thing you see on pro basketball players’ arms or the long odd sock on a marathon runner?
To the untrained eye this can look like random fashion statements but, actually they are compression socks and sleeves, and they do serve a purpose.
If you’re not totally up-to-date on what compression gear is or what it does, you can’t answer your client's questions about it. Keep reading to find out what these sleeves do and why you or your clients might consider using them.
Compression for Injury and Pain Prevention
Compression gear can help prevent injuries and pain when working out or participating in sports. It does this in a number of ways:
• Compression gear is tight and that means it increases the pressure on particular muscles and moves excess fluids back into the capillaries. This, in turn, increases blood flow and reduces swelling.
• Compression gear also reduces swelling by keeping the veins from over-filling.
• Sleeves and socks with compression improve blood flow making the exchange of oxygen, lactate, and nutrients occur more quickly.
• Compression socks “support and stimulate the calf muscle pump, increasing venous return and reducing leg edema” —this means less swelling in the legs after a strenuous workout.1 This reduction in swelling and resulting injury prevention is great for working out but also just for working.4
• Compression socks can reduce or even prevent edema caused by standing on your feet for long periods of time.
Compress Aids Recovery
Compression socks prevent pain and injuries by reducing swelling but also aid in recovery after being active.2 In a study done this year titled, “Effects of Compression Garment Pressure on Recovery from Strenuous Exercise,” researchers tested a group of active participants.
The participants were split up into three groups:
- One group wore high-compression garments.
- Another group wore low-compression gear.
- The last group underwent an ultrasound treatment instead of using compression.
All three groups performed the same exercise and then either wore the compression gear for 72 hours or received the ultrasound treatment. The greatest recovery was seen in the high compression group.3
So, as long as you choose real compression gear, with an adequate amount of pressure, you can reduce soreness, improve recovery, and experience fresher legs after exercising.
Medical Grade vs. Sport Compression
When you’re done reading this and you get online to search for some compression socks to try, you’ll probably find two things: medical grade compression gear and sports grade compression wear.
Medical grade compression has several qualities that distinguish these products from sports gear:
- It typically provides a more gradual pressure with the sock tightest at the ankle and looser at the top. This is designed to better move blood through the leg.
- Medical compression socks are also very lightweight, almost like pantyhose.
- You’ll see a typical pressure range between 8 and 50 mm Hg. The lowest pressures are designed for tired legs or for people who spend a lot of time on their feet throughout the day. The highest levels are for people with severe health conditions like post-thrombotic syndrome.
- Medical grade compression socks may be a good choice for people who are post-op and need to ensure they have proper blood circulation to prevent blood clots.
- At lower pressures, they are used for pregnant women, people who have varicose veins, and people who have poor circulation but need to be stationary for long periods of time, like on an airplane.
Sports compression gear does not come in the same range of pressures but relies on sizing instead. Sports compression gear also comes in several varieties, like compression sleeves that athletes wear while active and recovery socks that are worn after a workout.
The full sock—with a foot, as opposed to just a sleeve— is best for recovery because it has a gradual compression. With the foot included, you won’t experience as much blood pooling as you would with a sleeve.
The sleeve is good to use while participating in an activity because you are moving and your blood is circulating—the blood shouldn’t be pooling in your feet anyway.
Sports compression socks can help to relieve things like shin splints and calf cramps. They can reduce swelling, prevent injuries, and speed recovery. They are also made with moisture-wicking materials to keep you dry if you are wearing them while exercising.
Compression Isn’t Just for Legs
You’ve seen athletes, often football players and basketball players, wearing arm compression sleeves. These serve a similar purpose as compression socks or sleeves for the legs. They squeeze the blood and stimulate circulation, reduce swelling, prevent injury, and aid recovery.
Athletes usually wear the arm sleeves to reduce pain and soreness in the arm they shoot or throw with, and especially to prevent overuse or repetitive stress injuries.
Compression gear even goes beyond arms. You can also find compression shirts and pants. These aren’t usually necessary for the average gym goer, but for professional runners or triathletes, the extra compression can help to keep their legs fresher. Compression pants can also help athletes with thigh and hip pain.
Shopping and Sizing
When shopping for compression gear, things can get a little confusing. Almost every pair of workout pants claims to have compression—you can grab a pair of $30 workout pants almost anywhere and the tag may describe them as compression pants.
So what does that mean? Most of the time, unfortunately, it doesn’t mean much. They may be a little bit tighter than your average non-exercise leggings, but they do not offer a significant amount of pressure or any help with recovery.
Typically, the more expensive compression gear is, the more likely it is to provide any real pressure. Look for gear that is specifically marketed for injury prevention and recovery.
When sizing compression clothing, you need it to be tight, but not so tight that you can’t move. Compression pants use different patterns and panels to help add compression and keep it breathable and movable where it is most needed, so they are more comfortable than you would think.
To make sure the sizing is accurate, measure the biggest part of your body that will be sporting the compression sock or sleeve. For example, for socks or a sleeve for the lower leg, measure at the widest part of your calf and pick the size that corresponds to it.
Compression socks are very appealing because they have been shown to help with recovery, pain relief, and injury prevention. If your clients show interest in using compression, give them the rundown on the facts, and as always, make sure that they are cleared to exercise and not doing more harm than good. And make sure they are still getting the proper amount of rest time. Never substitute proper rest with compression sleeves and expect it to help.
1. Bovenschen, H. Jorn, Mariëlle Te Booij, and Carine J. M. Van Der Vleuten. "Graduated Compression Stockings for Runners: Friend, Foe, or Fake?" Journal of Athletic Training 48.2 (2013): 226-32. Web.
2. Brophy-Williams, Ned, Matthew W. Driller, Cecilia M. Kitic, James W. Fell, and Shona L. Halson. "Effect of Compression Socks Worn Between Repeated Maximal Running Bouts." International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance (2016): 1-22. Web.
3. Hill, Jessica, Glyn Howatson, Ken Van Someren, David Gaze, Hayley Legg, Jack Lineham, and Charles Pedlar. "Effects of Compression Garment Pressure on Recovery from Strenuous Exercise." International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance (2017): 1-22. Web.
4. Partsch, Hugo, Johann Winiger, and Bertrand Lun. "Compression Stockings Reduce Occupational Leg Swelling." Dermatologic Surgery 30.5 (2004): 737-43. Web.
5. "What do the compression levels really mean?" About Compression. N.p., n.d. Web. 27 Mar. 2017.
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