Harvard Heart Letter

Ask the doctor: Compression stockings for a long-distance flight?

Q. My 61-year-old mother plans to take a long plane trip. Her legs usually become swollen when she flies a long distance. Should she wear elastic stockings or take any other precautions so she doesn't develop a blood clot in her legs?

A. Developing mild swelling in the feet, ankles, and lower legs is common during long-haul flights. Sitting still is the culprit — blood and fluid pool in the lower extremities because they aren't aided in their return to the heart by contractions of the leg muscles. When the swelling occurs in both legs, it is benign, though annoying (especially when it is difficult to put your shoes back on at the end of the flight). Swelling in one leg, however, may be worth further evaluation.

Wearing below-the-knee vascular compression stockings that exert a small amount of pressure (20 to 30 millimeters of mercury) can prevent or diminish the swelling. In-seat exercises, involving contraction of the calf muscles or wiggling the feet up and down in rapid repetition, may be helpful in promoting circulation from the legs.

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