How Do Compression Socks Work — and Why Are They a Must-Have?

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Compression therapy, or CT, is a popular and safe way to help apply gentle pressure to various body parts in order to maintain good circulation and reduce discomfort and swelling. And, just to be clear, compression therapy is not just for older folks. In fact, this kind of therapy is helpful for those who might stand or sit all day, regardless of age.

Interested in trying it out? Compression garments like stockings, sleeves, gloves, and socks, can’t help you get started. In particular, compression socks can do a lot of good for your ankles, feet, and legs, and are by far one of the most common forms of CT. So, let's dive into how compression socks work and explore some of the pros and cons when it comes to using them.

How Do Compression Socks Work?

Without proper circulation, you can experience a series of issues, including inflammation, swelling, and, in serious cases, blood clots. So, how do compression socks help prevent or treat these issues? Compression socks (or stockings) come in various lengths and are designed to gently squeeze your legs, ankles and feet. They come with different levels of pressure, measured in mmHg. These specialized socks will feel tight, especially at the ankle, but shouldn't be painful or cut off your circulation.

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This pressure immediately works to reduce excess fluid and help the blood circulation in your vessels. It may take a few days of regular use to get swelling down, but you should notice immediate pain relief. They will also help to boost blood flow back to the heart. Therefore, compression socks can be a major help if standing fatigues you or if you are prone to consistent swelling.

Compression socks typically come in two standard lengths –– knee-high and thigh-high –– though ankle socks and full compression tights are becoming more popular, especially with athletes. When you’re looking for a pair of compression socks, you should also note that they come in two different varieties — graduated and anti-embolism. The more common graduated sock is tightest around the ankle and looser further up the leg; meanwhile, anti-embolism socks are designed to help maintain circulation and prevent blood clots, particularly for those who are bed-bound post-surgery.

Why Should You Invest in Compression Socks?

Compression socks work for many people, though the amount of time you use them may differ depending on your lifestyle and doctor’s advice. Since leg movement typically helps with blood circulation, these socks are a great investment for people who work sedentary jobs. Additionally, athletes, pregnant folks and people who are at risk for circulation-related problems, like folks with varicose veins or diabetes, find compression socks particularly helpful.

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Can Wearing Compression Socks Be Harmful?

Compression socks are generally safe, so long as you follow your doctor’s advice and adhere to the manufacturer’s instructions. However, wearing compression socks incorrectly, or overusing them, can have harmful effects on your legs and feet. For example, when these socks aren't fitted properly, they can actually prevent blood circulation — which, yes, is the complete opposite of their intended purpose. Additionally, ill-fitting socks can cause chafing, bruising and other forms of skin irritation.

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Still have concerns? Here are a few tips to make the wear and care of these socks easier:

  • Wash new compression stockings before wearing them to reduce any stiffness.
  • Don’t leave the same pair of compression socks on for days at a time.
  • Put on stockings as early in the morning as possible and after you bandage any sores. Why’s this? Swelling is usually less apartment in the morning.
  • If you don’t slip into your compression socks in the AM, elevate your legs for 20 to 30 minutes before pulling them on.
  • Heavy compression socks may go on more easily if light silk pantyhose are worn under the compression stockings or if you put lotion or baby powder on your legs. This is particularly helpful in the winter.
  • If you are not able to pull on your socks, talk with your doctor. You might need to try a different pair or get an assist from a device. (Think a compression sock shoe horn.)
  • Socks can move around throughout the day, so it’s important to check on your compression socks periodically.
  • When properly cared for, your socks can last up to six months. It is helpful to have two pairs, so that you swap them out every other day.
  • Remove your socks before bedtime.
  • Remember to hand wash the socks with soap and lukewarm water — and always air dry them. This will help them retain their compression abilities.
  • Compression socks should not never be damp when you put them on.

Some of the Best Compression Socks on the Market

OrthoSleeve WC4 Wellness Socks: These special compression socks are created using nano-bamboo charcoal to provide a durable and soft sock, which works well for those with diabetes or sensitive feet. Made with moisture-wicking fabric, the socks are lightweight but get the job done, all while being fairly stylish.

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SB SOX Compression Socks: The compression socks from SB SOX are knee-high options that work particularly well for athletes. In fact, the company states that the socks are preferred by trainers. Plus, a reinforced, cushioned heel and top-notch toe support aid the comfort factor.

Physix Gear Sport Compression Socks: Offering another athletic fit option, these socks are designed to stay in place. Comfortable, durable and able to withstand many washes without losing compression, these socks are of the highest quality.

CHARMKING Compression Socks: This brand combines fashion with functionality. With a variety of colors on offer, there’s a pair for every outfit. More importantly, these socks deliver 360-degree stretch for greater flexibility and durability — and the breathable, high-performance fabric will ease swelling all while keeping things comfy.

Resource Links:

  • "Compression Stockings" via MedlinePlus
  • "What is Venous Thromboembolism?" via Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
  • "Blood Clots During Travel" via Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)


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