Compression Stockings: What Are They and How Do They Work?

Woman on couch with exposed legs holding back side of ankle

Compression stockings help to limit venous disease progression, avoid blood clotting, and promote blood flow in the legs. 

According to board-certified vascular surgeon Jon Christian Allmon, M.D., F.A.C.S., of Ellison Vein Institute, one of the most frequent inquiries from patients is "What are compression stockings?"

Compression stockings are made from a unique elastic material that applies pressure to and around the leg. They are designed to be tighter at the ankles, with less pressure gradually increasing up the lower limbs toward the knees and thighs. 

Dr. Allmon states, "The graduated pressure mechanism powers the prescription stockings that we provide and recommend for you. These are different types of high-level compression stockings, typically called ‘20–30’ or ‘30–40’ based on millimeters of mercury. These are the same numbers we use to measure pressure when taking your arm blood pressure."

Man wearing compression stockings

Why Do People Wear Compression Stockings?

A vascular specialist might advise compression stockings to help treat varicose veins, spider veins, or chronic venous illnesses. Compression stockings can also help with:

  • Relieving the legs' heaviness and pain
  • Swelling
  • Vein bulging during pregnancy
  • Treating venous diseases such as venous insufficiency, superficial thrombophlebitis, ulcers, deep vein thrombosis, and chronic edema

After a vein surgery or any surgery where deep vein thrombosis is concerned, compression stockings are frequently used to prevent blood clot development. 

Wman putting on compression stockings

How Do Compression Stockings Work?

Within the body, blood flows in a roughly round path. For the lungs to get fresh oxygen, blood is pumped from the right side of the heart (the right ventricle). The blood travels to the left atrium of the heart after leaving the lungs, where it is distributed to various body areas to supply vital oxygen to the muscles, tissues, and organs. 

The blood must then be returned to the heart and lungs for fresh oxygen. It is known as "venous blood" because it travels through the vein network to do this. 

A condition known as "pooling" of the blood in the lower limbs can result from malfunctioning vein walls and valves, making unoxygenated blood more challenging to return to the heart. This may cause problems with the circulatory system if left untreated.

The purpose of compression stockings is to mitigate the harmful consequences of blood pooling. They are not like regular socks since they are made of a grid of solid elastics. The stockings apply the most pressure around the ankles, gradually reducing as one moves up the leg toward the thighs.

"They're called graduated because there's a little bit less pressure as they go up the leg and tend to be the tightest as they move from the toes," explains Dr. Allmon.

"The main way that we can transfer the venous blood back up toward your heart is by using the stocking to help compress the venous blood in your veins up and out, working with your calf muscle.”

Group of peope jogging with compression stockings

Are Prescription Compression Stockings Better?

It’s important to purchase prescription compression stockings to get the right pressure for your body and condition. The right size will lead to the correct compression, which is important for those with the risk of deep vein thrombosis. 

By gently pressing the stretched vein walls with the aid of the stocking's progressive compression, the calf muscle can restore average circulation by closing the veins and bringing blood closer to the heart. The stocking functions as an extra layer of muscle.

"Consider it as a tube with the strongest end helping to squeeze this venous blood out back and towards your heart while you walk," says Dr. Allmon.

The main veins' diameter often narrows with the right amount of graded compression. This increases blood flow volume and speed while reducing pain, swelling, and skin discoloration.

Make a Plan with a Vascular Specialist 

Are you struggling with unsightly veins? Do you have pain or discomfort in your legs? You may want to understand the underlying causes before you purchase compression stockings on your own.  Make an appointment with Dr. Allmon. Get back to living life!

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