Healthy blood flow throughout the body is essential to our survival. With each heartbeat, our circulatory system delivers nutrients oxygen to our cells and clears waste materials for disposal by other bodily systems.
We rely on two types of blood vessels for circulation—veins and arteries. Our arteries send oxygen-rich blood from the heart throughout the body, and our veins carry the waste products back to the heart. Both types of vessels have the potential to become damaged, leading to poor circulation.
Compression socks and stockings are particularly helpful for addressing common blood circulation problems related to the vascular and lymphatic systems.
The Causes of Poor Circulation in the Feet
When your feet don't get adequate blood flow, they can become swollen, turn blue or purple in color, and feel cold to the touch. You're likely to notice a feeling of heaviness, tingling, or aching when your circulation is poor. In some cases, you may develop skin changes or ulcers.
Often, vascular issues are the culprit behind poor circulation in the feet. That said, a number of different medical conditions can inhibit blood flow in the lower extremities. Below, we've listed a few of the most common risk factors for circulation problems that affect the feet.
Diabetes can lead to two major medical complications that impact the circulation in your feet.
First, people with diabetes frequently develop a condition called peripheral artery disease (PAD), which causes the arteries to harden and narrow. This reduces the blood flow from the heart to the feet.
In addition to PAD, diabetes patients sometimes experience peripheral edema. With this condition, small blood vessels, called capillaries, leak fluid into the nearby tissue. The excess fluid causes the lower limbs to swell.
Although the treatments for PAD and peripheral edema differ, both of these diabetes-related conditions can cause serious disruptions to healthy circulation.
A blockage in the lymphatic system may cause lymph fluid to leak out of the lymph vessels and collect in the surrounding tissue. As with peripheral edema, excess fluid builds up and leads to severe swelling. Some of the more problematic complications from lymphedema include DVT and bacterial infection.
Sitting for Long Periods
People who sit in the same position for long periods of time have a higher risk of developing circulation problems. In an article for American Association of Occupational Health Nurses, Patricia Emanuele, MSN, explains, "Employees in various occupations, especially those in transportation, air travel, confined spaces, and sedentary office positions, are at high risk for DVT [deep vein thrombosis]." They're also more likely to develop chronic venous insufficiency (CVI), which can cause varicose veins and venous ulcers to form.
Standing for Long Periods
Research suggests that chronic venous insufficiency is also more common in populations that stand for work. For instance, a 2020 study of 636 participants found that the prevalence of clinical CVI and venous reflux was high among health care workers, a population known to work long shifts while standing. These results were surprising in light of the good health of the study participants and the low frequency of cardiovascular comorbidities. (Cires-Drouet Abstract). Standing for long periods appears to be a health risk, even for otherwise healthy populations.
Pregnant women also are considered a high-risk group for developing venous disease. During pregnancy, birth, and the period following pregnancy, women often experience a relaxation in venous wall tone and an increase in venous pressure. Varicose and spider veins may result. The risk of deep vein thrombosis during late pregnancy and the peripartum period is also a concern. (Skudder & Farrington Abstract) Although these venous disorders may resolve in the months following the birth, DVT during pregnancy can be dangerous and can lead to fatal complications in some cases.
Risks Associated with Poor Circulation in the Feet
Pain and mild swelling are usually the first signs of poor circulation in the feet. While these symptoms may be uncomfortable, they do not necessarily pose a serious health risk if addressed in the early stages.
For people who experience symptoms as a result of failing valves or distended vein walls associated with CVI, the disease may progress to the formation of spider veins and varicose veins. This form of damage to the blood vessels cannot be reversed without surgery or expensive medical treatments. If CVI continues to worsen without treatment, venous ulcers and infections may also develop.
Anytime you have an ulcer or wound that won't heal, the risk of infection is high. PAD can put you at risk for critical limb ischemia, a condition that causes tissue death and sometimes requires amputation. In extreme cases, complications from lymphedema and peripheral edema can also require amputation.
Deep vein blood clots, or DVT, can also lead to severe, even fatal, complications. In some cases, deep vein blood clots break off and travel through the veins, ultimately causing blockages in the lungs. These blockages, or pulmonary embolisms, can be deadly. Post-thrombotic syndrome is another serious medical complication that can occur for patients with DVT.
How Compression Socks Help
Knee-high compression socks offer an inexpensive solution to restore healthy blood flow to the legs and feet. As a first-line treatment for venous disorders, compression therapy protects your vein valves and vein walls from damage. Graduated compression stockings and socks apply a gradient of pressure with a stronger level of compression at the feet and ankles than at the calves. This serves to support your veins and exert upward pressure in the direction of venous return.
Doctors often recommend compression socks for at-risk populations (such as pregnant women and standing workers) since compression can protect against DVT, CVI, and other vascular conditions. For example, both the Centers for Disease Control and the National Health Service recommend high-risk groups consider wearing compression socks during long-haul travel as a way to avoid DVT.
Many people also turn to compression socks for relief from the swelling caused by lymphedema and peripheral edema. Graduated compression boosts circulation, allowing your body to eliminate excess lymph and waste fluids through the circulatory system.
Although people with diabetes are generally advised to consult with a doctor before wearing compression socks, a 2017 double-blind study indicated that compression socks measuring 25 mmHg or less were safe for diabetes patients with edema in the lower extremities (Wu Abstract). These results are encouraging, but we recommend consulting with your doctor before wearing compression socks if you’ve been diagnosed with nerve damage or PAD.
Overall, compression works to improve circulation in the feet and may reduce painful symptoms related to:
- Peripheral edema
- Chronic venous insufficiency
- Deep vein thrombosis
- Long periods of sitting and standing
If you’re tired of swollen and painful feet, try our best-selling 15-25 mmHg compression socks. Not only will they help your feet feel more energized, but they may also provide protection from serious medical complications caused by poor circulation.
"Blood Clots During Travel." Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, 2017, https://wwwnc.cdc.gov/travel/page/dvt.
Cires-Drouet, Rafael S. et al. "High prevalence of chronic venous disease among health care workers in the United States." Journal of Vascular Surgery: Venous and Lymphatic Disorders, Volume 8, Issue 2, 2020, pp. 224-230, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jvsv.2019.10.017.
Emanuele, Patricia. “Deep Vein Thrombosis.” AAOHN Journal, vol. 56, no. 9, Sept. 2008, pp. 389–394, https://doi.org/10.1177/216507990805600904.
"How to improve blood circulation if you have type 2 diabetes." UCLA Health, 2021, https://connect.uclahealth.org/2021/01/14/how-to-improve-blood-circulation-if-you-have-type-2-diabetes/.
"Prevent DVT (deep vein thrombosis) when you travel." NHS, NHS England, 2019, https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/healthy-body/prevent-dvt-when-you-travel/.
Skudder, P. A., and D. T. Farrington. “Venous conditions associated with pregnancy.” Seminars in dermatology, vol. 12, iss. 2, 1993, pp. 72-77, https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/8512797/.
Wu, Stephanie C. et al. "Control of lower extremity edema in patients with diabetes: Double blind randomized controlled trial assessing the efficacy of mild compression diabetic socks." Diabetes Research and Clinical Practice, Vol. 127, 2017, pp. 35-43, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.diabres.2017.02.025.