The Benefits of Wearing Compression Socks – 2017 Scholarship Winner Hannah Frey

This post is the winning essay from our 2017 Scholarship Program by Hannah Frey. 

2017 Scholarship WinnerOur circulatory system is one of the most important features of our body. Consisting of the heart and blood vessels, this system provides the oxygen and nutrient transportation that fuel all of our life activities. Compression socks promote blood circulation by squeezing veins near the ankle, allowing blood to function even more effectively and efficiently. In doing so, oxygen is better able to reach its target tissues and blood continues to flow smoothly. This acceleration of the circulatory system is beneficial for those in demanding careers, athletes, travelers, pregnant women, individuals susceptible to blood clots, and those suffering from pain in their legs and feet.

The benefits of compression socks are best contextualized by the importance of proper circulation. Our blood’s main functions are to transport nutrients, protect against foreign microorganisms, and regulate pH/water balance. Veins carry deoxygenated blood in one direction: toward the heart. However, in the veins in our arms and legs, gravity encourages the blood to backflow away from the heart. Veins in our limbs have valves to prevent this, but leaky valves can cause varicose veins, and we often have fluid buildup in our legs after standing for extended periods. Compression socks are a further measure of preventing backflow and swelling; they work in synergy with our natural circulation to better allow blood to perform its important functions, thus aiding in our general health and homeostasis.

Compression socks are particularly useful for people whose careers demand that they are on their feet for long shifts. Employees working in health care, retail, food service, and education have little opportunity to sit down during their working hours and are susceptible to circulatory problems due to this additional strain. These individuals are often affected by fatigued legs and are more likely to experience swelling and varicose veins. Freshly oxygenated blood provides energy for muscles and tissue, meaning that support from compression socks is able to reduce fatigue and lactic acid. Leg swelling can be caused by the circulatory or lymphatic system and describes the retention of fluid toward the ankles; the pressure of compression socks not only allows blood to circulate better, but prevents fluids from pooling.

Because compression socks are able to provide more energy to muscles by reducing fatigue and lactic acid, they are ideal for athletes, especially runners. Blood carries oxygen and other respiratory gases; increased blood circulation can increase aerobic capacity and endurance. As the blood circulates, oxygen is deposited in tissues at capillary beds, where these tissues and muscles use it for activity. Even though compression socks do not increase blood volume or red blood cell concentration, they are able to increase the rate at which deoxygenated blood goes through the pulmonary and systemic circuits. Similarly, compression socks are able to promote athletic recovery by nourishing sore muscles, allowing an athlete to continue training sooner than they would otherwise be able to.

For those who travel frequently, compression socks can sustain blood circulation on long flights. Flight passengers have little opportunity to move around for extended periods, leading to leg pain and swollen ankles. Because compression socks are able to accelerate circulation, they are, in a sense, doing the “moving” for passengers. Compression socks are an extension of what our circulatory system already does, except they are able to stimulate circulation when our bodies cannot. Compression socks also prove useful during long drives, where the driver has to sit for several hours yet needs to retain function in their feet.

Compression socks are able to prevent pregnant women from developing varicose veins and swollen ankles. During pregnancy, the volume of blood increases, but the diameter of the veins does not dilate proportionally, causing veins to undergo additional stress. The increased blood pressure can cause backflow in veins. Varicose veins are those that have become enlarged, swollen, and twisted due valve failure, and are common in pregnant women. Compression socks are able to squeeze veins in a gradient (with increased pressure at the ankles) that reinforces the function of the valves and increases blood velocity.

Susceptibility to blood clots, including the symptoms of deep vein thrombosis (DVT), can be mitigated with compression socks. A thrombus (a blood clot) is able to develop into an embolus (a dislodged, obstructing clot) and cause an embolism, which, at its most severe, can result in organ failure. Clots of any size are able to block blood flow to some degree and are especially common in people who have been stationary for long periods of time. Compression socks are able to reduce the risk of blood clots by reducing the opportunity for blood to sit and coagulate; they increase blood movement and circulation, meaning that blood is unlikely to pool and clot.

Compression socks can offer a wide range of pain relief. They are able to alleviate joint pain, as seen in shin splints, arthritis, fibromyalgia, and plantar fasciitis (heel pain). Compression socks can also alleviate inflammation or the accumulation of blood fluid in the legs, respectively called phlebitis and lymphedema. The elderly are more at risk for these types of pain, although anyone can enjoy the pain relief and comfort that compression socks offer. In all cases, compression socks have a unique ability to remedy varieties of pain that millions of people suffer from worldwide.

Compression socks are an important aid to the circulatory system, working in tandem with it to better fuel the body and fulfill homeostatic requirements. While everyone can benefit from compression socks, they are especially useful for those with careers that require extended standing, athletes, travelers, pregnant women, people at risk for blood clots, and anyone suffering from pain in their legs or feet. Compression socks have great opportunity to reduce swelling, clotting, and varicose veins, and thus are able to greatly minimize discomfort in people who suffer from these problems. They are also able to stimulate activity and oxygen delivery in individuals who are already healthy. Compression socks work by stimulating an important life function, and thus are useful for anyone, whether they are a busy nurse or an aspiring athlete.