Many people know compression socks as those thick white tubes patients must wear after surgery to prevent blood clots when they are stuck in bed.
But a different type of compression sock, called graduated compression hosiery, is geared toward everyday use outside a hospital setting to help with a number of leg ailments, from aching to swelling to varicose veins to more serious venous insufficiency and lymphedema.
The purpose of graduated compression socks is to promote blood flow out of the legs and toward the heart, said Dr. Stephanie Wu, director of the Center for Lower Extremity Ambulatory Research at Dr. William M. Scholl College of Podiatric Medicine at Rosalind Franklin University in North Chicago, Ill.
The pressure of the garment, measured by millimeters of mercury, is greatest at the ankle and decreases as it goes up the leg to help blood fight gravity. Different pressure strengths serve different needs, Wu said: People who experience mild leg swelling from prolonged sitting or standing, traveling, pregnancy or sports may find relief with over-the-counter compression stockings with mild 15-20 mmHg; people with moderate leg swelling, heavy legs or varicose veins might need compression
of 20-30 mmHg; more severe vein ailments might require compression garments up to 60 mmHg.
Patients with persistent swelling, evidence of skin breakdown or chronic discoloration should see a doctor, said Dr. Stanley Rockson, director of the Center for Lymphatic and Venous Disorders at Stanford Hospital and Clinics. In general, pharmacies require a prescription for compression greater than 20 mmHg.
"There's virtually nobody that I can think of that would be adversely affected by using this kind of a garment, provided it is comfortable," Rockson said. As a precaution, those with a pre-existing condition might ask their physician first.
Graduated compression socks and hosiery must be replaced two to four times a year as the elastic elements weaken, Rockson said. Though the socks are medical garments, costs are not covered by most insurance companies, though some may cover costs based on a medical diagnosis, he said.