When a person suffers from leg swelling, discomfort, and visibly protruding veins, a doctor will often prescribe knee-high compression socks or stockings. You can buy compression socks at drugstores and medical supply stores. In some cases, a doctor may give you a stronger prescription that needs to be filled at a pharmacy.
You don't have to wait for your veins to become damaged in order to try compression socks. In fact, wearing compression socks is one of the most effective ways to stop varicose veins from forming.
What are Varicose Veins?
Varicose veins are damaged veins that become engorged with blood, causing pain. They can form on the legs, ankles, rectum, vulva, testicles, esophagus, stomach, or liver. It's especially common for varicose veins to impact the legs.
The cells in your legs rely on your arteries to deliver freshly oxygenated blood and oxygen from your heart. After you use the nutrients, your veins carry the deoxygenated blood and waste materials away.
Since the blood flow from your legs back to your heart moves against the force of gravity, you depend on small one-way valves in your veins to keep your blood moving in the correct direction. Sometimes, the vein valves fail, which allows blood to flow down, in the opposite direction of venous return. This can cause damage to your vein walls and, ultimately, the formation of a varicose vein.
Why Do Varicose Veins Form?
When the valves in your veins don't function normally, you can develop a medical condition called chronic venous insufficiency (CVI). Once your valves start to fail, the resulting blood circulation problems often become chronic. As veins struggle with dilation and reflux, your body puts more pressure on the remaining valves and vascular structures.
There are six stages to the progression of CVI, but not all people with CVI progress to the later stages. As CVI worsens, the symptoms become more noticeable and painful.
In the earliest stage of CVI, you may notice the appearance of web-like broken blood vessels, called spider veins. When you reach the second stage of the disease, your circulation problems lead to the formation of varicose veins. These bulging veins, normally blue or green in color, indicate that the vein walls have been severely damaged. Varicose veins can be painful and unsightly, but they're not usually dangerous.
If CVI continues to stages 3-6, the health risks become more significant. Late-stage CVI can cause hypertension and acute swelling, as well as rashes and active ulcers (Ligi et al. 2). Since damaged skin can become infected, ulcers and rashes may lead to more serious complications.
Perhaps most significantly, varicose veins are a risk factor for deep vein thrombosis, or DVT (Chang et al. Abstract). Deep vein blood clots sometimes lead to dangerous medical complications, including pulmonary embolism and post-thrombotic syndrome.
How Do You Stop CVI from Progressing?
Compression stockings and socks are a first-line treatment for CVI at any stage. Although they cannot reverse the existing damage from the disease, they do help to mitigate symptoms and stop chronic venous disease from progressing.
For someone at high risk of developing varicose veins, compression garments can be used to prevent them. As an example, a 2019 study evaluated the effect of compression garments on pregnant women, a high-risk group. The researchers concluded that pregnant women who wore medium-strength compression stockings showed reduced vein diameters, as well as improved signs and symptoms of venous insufficiency compared to women who did not wear compression. The women also reported satisfaction with the use of compression stockings. (Saliba et al. 53)
In addition, female workers with standing professions, another group thought to be at high risk for CVI, showed a significant reduction in lower limb symptoms after wearing compression garments in another study (Jungbeck et al. Abstract). Similar results have been published for high-risk men.
If you already have varicose veins, compression socks may help to protect your veins from further damage and reduce your symptoms. In a review of the existing scientific literature published in 2018, the authors concluded, "The place of MCS [compression stockings] as a treatment is now firmly established for most venous and lymphatic conditions, as well as for venous symptoms in healthy people." In particular, they strongly recommended the use of compression to improve venous symptoms, quality of life, and edema. (Rabe et al. 163, 175)
What If Your Varicose Veins Are Already Severe?
For patients with extreme varicose veins and ulcers from CVI, compression socks are one of the easiest and least expensive treatment options. You can use compression therapy to heal ulcers and prevent them from forming in the future.
Turning again to the 2018 scientific review, the authors made strong recommendations for compression therapy in the following use cases:
- Improving skin changes caused by chronic venous disease
- Improving lipodermatosclerosis caused by chronic venous disease
- Reducing the recurrence of venous leg ulcers caused by chronic venous disease
- Improving venous leg ulcer healing
So, for late-stage CVI, compression socks and stockings are an extremely helpful treatment. Not only do they reduce aches and pains, but they're one of the primary treatments for damage to the surface of the skin resulting from venous pressure.
To get rid of painful varicose veins, some patients opt to undergo surgery, such as vein ligation and stripping. In other cases, patients choose non-surgical treatments, including sclerotherapy. After a vascular procedure, your doctor will likely recommend compression socks or stockings to help you heal.
Even after removing damaged veins, you may still struggle with the underlying CVI that caused the damage to accumulate in the first place. Many doctors recommend that patients wear compression socks in the period following a vascular treatment to prevent new varicose veins from forming.
Always check with your doctor before wearing compression garments after a medical procedure.
What Level of Compression Is Best for Varicose Veins?
Compression is measured in millimeters of mercury (mmHg). Medical research on the effectiveness of compression for varicose veins shows benefits from a variety of compression levels, starting as low as 8 mmHg. The two studies mentioned in this article looked at medium-strength graduated compression, measuring 20-30mmHg. Most over-the-counter compression socks, including different types of stockings you would find at airports or drugstores, provide 15-20mmHg.
Most medical studies have used graduated compression, a particular kind of compression therapy, on the study participants. This form of compression applies different amounts of pressure at the ankles and the calves. The gradient means that your legs receive consistent pressure in an upward direction to support venous return. Both knee-high stockings and socks can offer graduated compression, and the material doesn't impact the compression strength as long as the compression level is measured in mmHg.
We've designed our knee-high socks so that they offer 15-25 mmHg. This range of compression is ideal for both the prevention and treatment of varicose veins. Occupying the sweet spot between medium and mild compression, our socks squeeze your legs hard enough to give you medical benefits while remaining comfortable to wear. The "sweet spot" is also an optimal strength for athletes, frequent flyers, and people who sit or stand for long periods of time.
If you're looking to reduce muscle cramps, aching, and discomfort, especially if your symptoms originate from visible veins in your legs, try compression therapy. There is ample evidence that compression socks can help reduce symptoms related to varicose veins.
Plus, knee-high compression is a low-cost and easy-to-use—especially compared to varicose vein surgery, thigh-high stockings, or expensive procedures.
Chang, S, et al. "Association of Varicose Veins With Incident Venous Thromboembolism and Peripheral Artery Disease." JAMA, Vol. 319, Iss. 8, 2018, pp. 807–817, www.doi.org/10.1001/jama.2018.0246.
"Chronic Venous Insufficiency." Johns Hopkins Medicine, The Johns Hopkins University, The Johns Hopkins Hospital, and Johns Hopkins Health System, https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/conditions-and-diseases/chronic-venous-insufficiency.
Jungbeck, C., et al. “Effects of Compression Hosiery in Female Workers with a Standing Profession.” Phlebology, vol. 16, no. 3, Sept. 2002, pp. 117–120, www.doi.org/10.1177/026835550201600307.
Ligi, Daniela, et al. “Chronic Venous Disorders: The Dangerous, the Good, and the Diverse.” International journal of molecular sciences, vol. 19, iss. 9, 2544, 28 Aug. 2018, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6164218/pdf/ijms-19-02544.pdf.
Rabe, Eberhard, et al. “Indications for Medical Compression Stockings in Venous and Lymphatic Disorders: An Evidence-Based Consensus Statement.” Phlebology: The Journal of Venous Disease, vol. 33, no. 3, 2017, pp. 163–184, https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0268355516689631.
Saliba Júnior, Orlando Adas, et al. “Graduated Compression Stockings Effects on Chronic Venous Disease Signs and Symptoms during Pregnancy.” Phlebology: The Journal of Venous Disease, vol. 35, no. 1, 2019, pp. 46–55, www.doi.org/10.1177/0268355519846740.
“Varicose Veins.” National Heart Lung and Blood Institute, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health-topics/varicose-veins.