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What Are Compression Sleeves & How Do They Work?


Comrad doesn't sell compression sleeves, but we do know a thing or two about compression. 

In this article, we'll outline the benefits of compression leg sleeves and arm sleeves. We'll also explain how compression sleeves compare to other forms of compression therapy, such as compression socks and intermittent pneumatic compression (IPC) devices. 

What You Need To Know About Compression Sleeves

First, it's important to understand that compression sleeves are typically used for two main purposes. Physicians prescribe compression sleeves to help patients manage the symptoms of lymphedema. 

This condition can occur on its own or after a surgery involving the removal of lymph nodes, a common procedure for cancer patients. After a lymphadenectomy, some patients experience swelling in their arms and legs due to a disturbance in the flow of lymph fluids. 

A lymphedema therapist or oncologist may recommend a compression sleeve, or another form of compression therapy, to help reduce the swelling. 

In addition to lymphedema patients undergoing cancer treatment, athletes also report benefits from using compression therapy. Studies have shown that athletes perceive a reduction in delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) and improve functional recovery using compression gear. You don't have to be an athlete to experience medical benefits. 

Compression therapy also helps improve leg fatigue during long periods of standing and sitting, reducing pain and discomfort during regular physical activity. By improving your circulation and clearing waste materials, compression can leave your legs feeling energized and lightweight.

What Are Arm and Leg Sleeves?

Arm sleeves normally extend from the wrist to the upper arm near the armpit. Most often, they're used to treat the symptoms of lymphedema after a breast cancer surgery involving the removal of lymph nodes. 

Leg sleeves come in several different lengths. They may cover the entire leg, from the ankle to the thigh, or they may cover only a portion of the leg.  Some compression sleeves—especially the ones made of neoprene—are designed to function as braces. A knee compression sleeve, for instance, typically only covers the knee area. In that case, the purpose of the sleeve is to stabilize the joint rather than to support healthy vascular function. 

Some compression sleeves can be used for both daytime or nighttime use. It’s best to assume that sleeves are intended for daytime use unless they're labeled as nighttime sleeves. 

How Do Compression Sleeves Work?

Compression sleeves apply gentle pressure to the veins in the lower legs and the arms. This helps to support the vein walls and vein valves while encouraging blood flow from the extremities to the heart. Over time, vascular structures can fail due to age, venous hypertension, or injury. The extra support helps to encourage healthy venous return. 

In addition, the pressure clears waste materials from the vessels and the surrounding tissue. Lymph fluid, lactic acid, and other enzymes that cause swelling in the arms and legs should be processed through the circulatory system. 

Compression can assist the flow of fluids, preventing waste materials from lingering in the legs or arms.

By squeezing the veins, compression garments also improve the velocity of blood flow. Imagine a garden hose with a wide circumference. If you blocked the hose’s mouth with your thumb, the narrower spray would increase the velocity. The same thing happens inside your veins. By narrowing the circumference of your veins, compression promotes faster, more efficient circulation.

Some leg compression sleeves and socks offer graduated compression, which boosts the circulatory system. Gravity sometimes causes the pooling of blood and waste fluids in the lower legs and feet, especially when you stand or sit for a long time. Graduated compression applies upward pressure to help eliminate fluids from this area. 

Graduated compression garments deliver a gradient of pressure, with more compression at the ankles and less at the calves. When shopping for compression garments, try to look for graduated compression (measured in a range of millimeters of mercury) if you want lower leg and calf support. 

How Do Compression Sleeves Compare to Socks and Stockings? 

Many compression sleeves function in a similar way to socks and stockings. For example, calf compression sleeves typically cover the leg from the ankle to the calf, and they can be manufactured to apply graduated compression. 

A compression sleeve with graduated compression is comparable to a sock or stocking, although it cannot prevent swelling in the feet. A compression sleeve may help with some forms of injury prevention and treatment, such as shin splint relief; however, it is unlikely to help with plantar fasciitis, Achilles tendonitis, or other overuse injuries that impact the feet and ankles. 

Both compression stockings and sleeves can be customized. A doctor may prescribe a custom sleeve to fit the circumference of your arm or to deliver a particular pressure range. Physicians can also prescribe stockings with made-to-order measurements. 

While socks are generally not available in custom sizes or compression strengths, Comrad does offer extra-wide sizes, up to 20 inches. We also give customers choices when it comes to compression strength. Our best-selling Companions deliver 15-25 mmHg, and we also offer recycled cotton socks with 15-20 mmHg. 

How Do Compression Sleeves Compare to IPC Devices? 

Research suggests that graduated compression garments may help prevent at-risk populations, such as airline passengers, from developing deep vein blood clots. Post-surgical patients are also at risk for deep vein thrombosis (DVT), and compression garments may help to reduce the risk. However, most of the research on graduated compression therapy has centered on graduated compression stockings, not sleeves. 

As an alternative treatment, doctors often recommend IPC devices for the prevention of DVT. Unlike sleeves, IPC devices use cuffs filled with air that mechanically inflate and deflate, applying intermittent compression to the veins. Doctors usually recommend IPC for patients recovering from surgery, patients who have lymphedema, or patients recovering from a stroke. 

While IPC devices and graduated compression garments apply compression to the veins, IPC devices limit your mobility in a way that socks, stockings, and sleeves do not. 

They're meant to be used while seated, and they're normally plugged into an electrical socket. As a result, they can be more cumbersome to use. Since they're categorized as medical equipment, IPC devices also cost much more than compression garments. 

What to Look For In a Compression Sleeve 

Depending on how you want to use the compression sleeve, you may want to check the fabric for durability or moisture-wicking fabric. 

For example, for people who want to wear a compression sleeve during strenuous exercise, it’s important to make sure that the fabric is made from breathable materials and is easy to clean. We recommend choosing high-performance fabrics for workouts, like nylon and spandex. You can also read the laundering instructions before making a purchase. 

At Comrad, we offer socks in several different fabrics, including nylon, recycled cotton, and Merino wool. Our nylon and recycled cotton socks benefit from SmartSilver technology. We bond silver ions to the fabric at a molecular level, making our socks inhospitable to bacteria, mold, and fungus. 

Also, Merino wool has anti-odor and antimicrobial properties, so your socks stay clean and fresh through multiple wears. All of our socks are machine washable, which makes laundry day a breeze.

Before you buy a compression sleeve, be sure to check the materials and the compression strength. Check the label for a range of compression, consisting of two numbers, measured in mmHg. This numeric range tells you that you're getting the medical benefits of graduated compression. 

This is important if you plan to wear the sleeve to reduce swelling and inflammation or improve your circulatory health. 

Like the ones designed to reduce knee pain, sleeves that function as knee braces won't usually provide graduated compression. Instead, these foam or neoprene sleeves tend to offer a smaller coverage area with uniform compression strength.

If you're looking to reduce swelling, improve your circulatory health, or reduce your risk of DVT, you may want to try Comrad socks with True Graduated Compression. They're similar to leg sleeves, but they give you more medical benefits:

  • Reduced swelling in the feet
  • Prevention and treatment for overuse injuries in the feet and ankles
  • More research supporting the use of stockings/socks for vascular health


Compression Socks and Functional Recovery Following Marathon Running | The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research

Compression stockings for preventing deep vein thrombosis in airline passengers | Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews

DVT Prevention: Intermittent Pneumatic Compression Devices | Johns Hopkins Medicine 

Graduated Compression Stockings and Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness | The Engineering of Sport

Graduated compression stockings in the prevention of venous thromboembolism | British Journal of Surgery 

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