What is compression therapy and how does it help certain medical conditions?

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Compression therapy, in which pressure is applied to certain areas of the body, has been proven to help with specific medical issues and is relatively easy to use. 

“Compression for lower extremities helps prevent or decrease swelling seen in the lower legs or when the legs are in a dependent position, sitting or standing,” Danielle Bajakian, M.D., a vascular surgeon at Columbia University Irving Medical Center in New York, told Fox News Digital. 

Here’s a deeper dive and what to know.

What is compression therapy?

Compression therapy can be used to help improve blood flow and decrease perceived muscle soreness related to exercise and activity.

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That’s according to Chicago-based Leo Arguelles, PT, DPT, a spokesperson with the American Physical Therapy Association. 

Compression therapy can be used to help improve blood flow and decrease perceived muscle soreness related to exercise and activity. Compression garments and sleeves can help both on the legs and arms.  (iStock)

“It is most commonly used in the case of sleeves worn on the lower legs, but it can also be used for the upper extremities,” he said.

He said types may include:

  • Compression bandaging
  • Compression garments or sleeves
  • Taping
  • Total contact casting
  • Pneumatic compression devices (sleeves worn around legs that fill with air and squeeze)

Who can benefit from compression therapy?

Dr. Bajakian of Columbia University said patients who most commonly benefit from this are those with venous insufficiency or deep vein thrombosis.

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Others who can benefit: pregnant women in their second and third trimester, when their blood volume increases; patients with lymphedema (a build-up of lymph fluid in the fatty tissues just under the skin); and patients with heart failure or other medical conditions that prevent venous return, resulting in leg edema.

Should people buy OTC compression clothing?

For most patients with mild symptoms, OTC compression clothing works well, Dr. Bajakian said. 

“The keys to effective compression garments are compliance and fit,” she added. 

Painful leg

Walking and exercising the legs, especially the calf muscles, can help with venous insufficiency as well, said one medical expert.  (iStock)

For a compression garment to work, the fit needs to be snug. 

For socks, there are usually sizing guidelines for calf circumference and leg length from knee to ankle, she said. 

“They should fit tightly around the ankle and looser as they get higher toward the knee,” Dr. Bajakian noted. 

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“Regarding compliance, over the counter brands offer an array of styles and fabrics that work with different lifestyles,” she also noted. “I often see better compliance with those than a medical grade compression garment.”

She clarified that for patients with severe symptoms or diagnoses such as lymphedema, medical-grade compression garments are essential.

When else can compression therapy be helpful?

Sunil Iyer, M.D., FACC, an interventional cardiologist and vascular medicine specialist with Novant Health Heart & Vascular Institute in Wilmington, North Carolina, told Fox News Digital that for people who are on their feet for long periods of time — or who are going for long car rides or airplane rides — graduated compression stockings can help with the swelling and discomfort that may come from the blood pooling in the ankles. 

Reclining flight passengers

People who are on their feet for long periods of time — or who are going for long car rides or airplane rides — may benefit from graduated compression stockings that can help with the swelling and discomfort that may come from blood pooling in the ankles.  (iStock)

“This can even help varicose veins not to form or not to be as engorged and painful,” Dr. Iyer said. 

Compression stockings are part of the treatment, he said. 

In addition, walking and exercising the legs, especially the calf muscles, can help with venous insufficiency as well, he said. 

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“Diet is also important. Patients may note that the swelling is worse after they drink a lot of fluids or eat a lot of salt,” he said.

Do people need to speak to a doctor before they buy compression socks?

For patients with minimal medical problems who are looking to improve vein health, there is no need to consult a physician prior to buying compression stockings, said Dr. Bajakian.  

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“However, patients who are at risk of blood clots or who have unexplained leg swelling should seek out a doctor for a workup,” she said. 

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