When you hear of compression stockings being recommended for people on long-distance flights, you may remember the thick beige stockings your grandmother wore for varicose veins. Yes, those were compression stockings too, but today’s are available in a much wider variety of colours, lengths, and even thicknesses and compression strengths.
Compression stockings are intended to help your circulation by preventing the pooling of blood in your legs.
Your blood circulates via arteries throughout your body, delivering oxygen to all the cells. The de-oxygenated blood then returns through veins to your heart in order to repeat its journey.
But the trip back from your legs is a long one, and sometimes the blood pools in your legs, which can lead to clots or deep vein thrombosis (DVT).
Statistically, out of every 1,000 Canadians, one or two per year will experience DVT, although the real number may be higher since many episodes of DVTs may not be diagnosed.
The danger is that a clot may break free from inside the vein and travel to your lungs, resulting in a pulmonary embolism.
Compression stockings or support hose exert pressure on your legs. This encourages the movement of blood back towards your heart by preventing the pooling of blood. The compression is the “tightest” at your ankle and “lightest” at your upper leg, so the stockings help squeeze the blood back up your legs.
Family history and genetics, prolonged bed rest, trauma, pregnancy, taking birth control tablets, being overweight, smoking, cancer, heart failure, sitting for long periods of time such as taking an airplane flight, and older age — especially older than 60 — are risk factors. It makes sense that if you have one or more of these risk factors, compression stockings may be a good idea.
There are other reasons for wearing compression stockings, for example varicose veins, phlebitis (that is, inflammation within veins in your leg), standing for long periods of time resulting in “tired” legs, pregnancy, and even sports, again to prevent “tired” legs. Leg edema or swelling can be a complication of some disease states, and compression stockings may be recommended, for example with diabetes, lymphedema or cellulitis.
The compression strength range is from 10 to 30 mm Hg with 30 being the firmest. Lower pressure stockings can be purchased with a prescription, but measurements are essential for a proper fit. Higher pressure stockings are usually recommended by a health care professional and fitted by a specialist, again using your legs’ measurements. To be of most benefit, stockings need to be the length of your leg; socks do not provide compression along the length of your leg.
If you wear compression stockings, put them on first thing in the morning or prior to your flight. Rolling them up from your toes may make this easier, but there are also stocking “pullers” and an easy trick is to use rubber or latex gloves to help pull them on.
It is not usually recommended to wear them overnight. Also be sure to follow the manufacturers’ recommendations for washing them.
You want to be comfortable in the stockings. They should be snug but not cut off circulation. Wearing a pair of lighter socks under the compression ones may avoid skin irritation. If skin irritation does occur, a change to another brand may resolve the symptoms.
Unless recommended, you should not wear compression stockings if you have an open leg wound.
Keep in mind that a flight over two hours is sometimes considered a long haul flight and you may want to wear compression stockings, especially if you are taller, meaning your blood has a longer distance to travel!
And, when flying make sure you walk around the cabin, do stretching exercises, or even flex your calf muscles from time to time.
The symptoms of DVTs are general in nature, including leg warmth and redness, achy legs, and sometimes pain in your legs and they can be dismissed as general fatigue from travel. If you think you may be affected, get checked, and don’t forget your compression stockings next time!