Compression Socks Help Prevent Fatal Blood Clots

You may have seen the news that American Express President Ed Gilligan died last week when a blood clot caused him to have a heart attack during a flight from Tokyo. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control has pointed out that a blood clot, also called deep-vein thrombosis, can be a serious risk for people who travel long distances, including those who take long-haul flights.

But there are things you can do to lower the risk. One of our travel-savvy friends posted on Facebook, “I make an average of 8-10 long-haul flights every year…In addition to stretching and walking around for a good 10 minutes every 2 hours, I wear compression socks and take an aspirin before each transatlantic flight.”

The Skinny on Compression Socks

If you’re not familiar with compression socks, they apply specific amounts of pressure from the ankle area to the top of the sock to increase blood flow.

“I travel quite a bit, and I always wear a lighter compression sock to make my legs feel better,” said Dr. James L. “Bo” Johnson of the Rocky Mountain Vein Clinic in Cody, Wyo.

Dr. Johnson, who treats people with vein disease, explained to us why travelers often have sore and swollen feet and legs after sitting or standing for a long time.

When blood flows from your heart into your muscles, such as your calves, it delivers oxygen and nutrients to the muscles, he explained. Once the blood loses that oxygen, it must travel back to the heart to be enriched again with oxygen.

“But you don’t have a heart in your leg pumping blood back to your heart,” he said, explaining that it’s up to your muscles to push the blood out of your lower extremities. However, the muscles don’t flex easily when you’re standing or sitting still, and the blood can pool in your feet and legs.

Compression socks squeeze your feet and legs to encourage the blood to flow back your heart. According to Johnson, there are a few things you need to consider when buying compression socks.

  • Pay attention to compression ratingsSockwell1

Not all compression socks are created equal. There are medical-grade compression socks and styles that are not medical grade. The medical-grade socks are designed for people with vein disease, while travelers without vein disease do not necessarily need them.

Medical-grade socks will have a compression rating of 20-30 mmHg or 30-40 mmHg. So what’s that mean?

20-30 mmHg: These socks deliver 20 millimeters of mercury pressure at the top of the socks and 30 millimeters of mercury pressure at the ankle area.

30-40 mmHg: These socks offer 30 millimeters of mercury pressure at the top of the sock, and 40 millimeters of mercury pressure at the ankle area.

Socks that aren’t medical grade will have ratings of 15-20 mmHg or lower, and these are fine for helping travelers reduce aches and swelling in their feet, ankles and legs.

Before you buy a pair of compression socks, check the description of the product, and you should be able to find the rating, or they will say “light compression” to indicate they’re not medical grade.

  • Be aware of vein disease

According to Dr. Johnson, 20 to 25 percent of people in the United States have vein disease, which is basically a condition where valves in the arteries do not function properly, so blood does not flow back to the heart properly. “It’s really common,” he said. “If one parent has it, there’s a 70 percent chance the kids will have it.”

These people might feel in their lower extremities a sense of heaviness, aching, fatigue, muscle cramps, mild swelling, or itching in their lower legs, especially behind the anklebone. They might also have restless leg syndrome, he said, adding that vein disease is one of the most common causes of restless leg syndrome.

Dr. Johnson said he recommends that people with vein disease wear compression socks for long-term treatment, and added that they need socks with a rating of at least 20-30 mmHg.

  • Buy socks with ‘graduated compression’Smartwool1

Effective compression socks apply more pressure at the ankle than they apply at the tops of the sock. The level of compression should gradually shift from one end of the sock to the other, and high-quality compression socks will have a consistent, uniform taper to move blood most effectively. “If it’s not uniform in the taper, it won’t function as well,” said Dr. Johnson.

  • You’ll find compression socks designed for sports

Top-notch companies offer compression socks that are designed for activities such as running. According to Dr. Johnson, these products won’t necessarily improve your athletic ability, but they could help you recover more quickly.

“I’ve looked through the latest literature, and can’t find any significant affect on performance, as far as endurance or making you run faster,” he said. However, he pointed out that studies have shown that compression products could provide a little more power with jumping.

More importantly, studies have shown that some people are less sore after an activity if they wear compression socks. “It helps get the lactic acid out of the muscle faster,” said Dr. Johnson.

  • Consider whether you’re susceptible to blood clots

Pick up some compression socks if you’re about to take a long plane trip and you’ve recently had surgery, or if other factors make it possible that you’ll have blood clots. When you stand or sit for long periods of time, and blood pools in you’re lower extremities, it’s called veinous stasis, said Dr. Johnson, adding, “That’s part of the ingredients to create a blood clot.”

Here are several compression socks on the market:


Smartwool — Graduated Compression StandUP

SmartwoolPerfect for travelers, the Smartwool Graduated Compression StandUP (available for men and women) has a mild graduated compression rating of 10-20 mmHg. The sock not only reduces swelling and fatigue, but it also has 67 percent merino wool to help wick moisture, regulate temperature and reduce odor. Plus, there’s a seamless toe for added comfort. $26.95


VIM&VIGR — Moisture-Wick Nylon

Vim&VigrVIM&VIGR makes socks with a graduated compression level of 15-20 mmHg for everyday use. The Moisture-Wick Nylon sock (for men and women) pulls sweat away from your skin to keep feet dry and comfortable. It’s made with 75 percent polyester, 13 percent nylon and 12 percent Spandex. Also, the company offers compression socks made of cotton and wool. $32.95


Sockwell — Circulator

SockwellAnother good choice for travelers is the Sockwell Circulator, which offers moderate graduated compression. To regulate temperature, manage moisture and fight odors, it has a blend of 32 percent merino wool, 31 percent bamboo and 32 percent Nylon. Plus, Spandex runs throughout the sock to provide compression and increase arch support, while a seamless toe eliminates annoying friction. $19.99

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