Harvard Health Letter

Boosting circulation with compression stockings

They're used to treat venous disease, heart failure, even deep-vein thrombosis.

Your veins return blood to your heart. But when you're standing or sitting, gravity pulls blood down, away from the heart, causing it to pool in your legs. Compression stockings help keep that from happening. They come in varying pressures—from strong to light—and in varying lengths—from knee-high to hip-high. The strongest stockings must be custom-fit and require a prescription. Lower-strength over-the-counter compression hose are available in pharmacies.

Compression stockings are most often used to treat chronic venous insufficiency, a condition in which the walls of the aging veins are stretched out or the valves in the veins wear out. The valves normally open as blood flows toward the heart, and close to keep blood from flowing backward. If the valves aren't working properly, the blood may pool, causing legs to feel tired or achy and ankles to swell. Broken valves may also create varicose veins—large, bulging purple veins just under the surface of the skin. "These should be removed to prevent progression to more advanced venous disease. Before removal, compression stockings can help keep blood flowing, and after removal, they can prevent recurrence," says vascular surgeon Dr. Sherry Scovell, an instructor at Harvard Medical School.

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