Aching feet, swollen ankles, and even varicose veins are common discomforts many pregnant people experience. Most of the time, this swelling—often called edema—starts showing up toward the end of pregnancy and is a common complaint.
In fact, research shows edema impactsabout three-quartersof pregnant people, usually between weeks 22 and 27 of pregnancy. To combat this common issue, many healthcare professionals recommend wearing compression socks.
"Compression socks give extra support to a limb to help decrease swelling or edema from building up in the area," says Kelly Sturm, DPT, CLT-LANA, a physical therapist and certified lymphedema therapist. "They are primarily used for prevention or maintenance in pregnancy."
If you are experiencing swelling in your ankles and calves, or if you spend a lot of time on your feet, you may be wondering if compression socks may bring you some comfort. Below we discuss what compression socks do, the benefits of using them, and what to look for when purchasing a pair.
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Purpose and Benefits of Compression Socks
When you are pregnant, your blood volume increases by 50%, says Jian Jenny Tang, MD, a board-certified OB/GYN and assistant professor in the department of obstetrics, gynecology, and reproductive science at Mount Sinai School of Medicine. This increased blood volume causes your veins to open up, which can lead to swelling and even varicose veins, she says. Many healthcare providers will recommend compression socks to combat the swelling, aching, or the risk of varicose veins that accompanies pregnancy.
"Compression socks apply even pressure to your lower legs to decrease swelling while helping to maintain blood flow in the veins of the leg," says Marcia Summers, MD, a board-certified OB/GYN with Dublin Methodist Hospital in central Ohio. The pressure helps to reduce the size of the blood vessels in your legs, which improves their ability to push the blood back up to the heart, Dr. Tang adds.
Studies have proven this. One recent study found pregnant people who wore compression socks experienced significantly less swelling in their ankles and calves than those who did not wear them. Other studies have noted compression socks may help relieve leg pain and the achy feeling many people often experience in pregnancy, as well as help prevent varicose veins.
Compression socks also can be used to combat some nausea and even dizziness that is experienced in pregnancy, Dr. Summers adds. In fact, one study found compression stockings may help improve nausea and vomiting symptoms often experienced in early pregnancy.
When to See a Healthcare Provider
There are times when compression socks are not appropriate for pregnant people. If you have a red, warm area on your leg that is painful to the touch, or swelling that came on suddenly, you should call your healthcare provider right away. They can evaluate you for a variety of potential complications such as deep vein thrombosis (DVT) and preeclampsia. You should not wear compression socks if you have either of these conditions.
Likewise, compression socks are not advisable for someone who has an infection or is allergic to the material. Always talk with a healthcare provider before using compression socks to ensure they are right for you.
What to Look for in a Compression Sock
If your healthcare provider has recommended you wear compression socks, you may be wondering how to find the right pair. "[Remember,] the stocking has to be comfortable because you will wear it eight to 10 hours a day," Dr. Tang says. Essentially, when purchasing compression socks, you will want to consider the fit of the stocking, the level of compression, and the material it is made of.
Generally, you can find compression socks at pharmacies, from your healthcare provider, or online. Be sure to check with your insurance provider, too, as some companies provide coverage for the purchase.
Fit of the Stocking
As with anything you wear during pregnancy, your compression socks should not be too tight. Compression socks that are too tight can cause pain and impact your circulation. In other words, you want a firm fit, but they should not pinch or cause tingling or numbness in your toes or feet, Dr. Summers says. Conversely, if your compression stockings are too loose, they won't provide the pressure needed to reduce swelling, improve blood flow, and alleviate pain.
Most compression sock manufacturers offer a size guide that you can refer to when making your selection. "A sock that [uses] calf measurements—and sometimes ankle measurements and shoe size—will help you get a comfortable fit," says Dr. Summers.
Depending on where you live, you may be able to find a store that can fit you for a pair of compression socks, says Dr. Tang. An expert fitting like this can help ensure you get the right size. In addition to these boutique stores, some pharmacies and medical supply stores may be able to help you as well.
Level of Compression
There are different levels of compression available, from light to firm. "When shopping for compression socks, it is important to know that they are graded based on level of compression," says Dr. Sturm. For average compression sock users, they're likely looking for a compression of 15 to 20 mmHg (millimeters of mercury of pressure), Dr. Sturm explains. This is a light compression that is good for mild or general swelling.
If you have a history of swelling like venous insufficiency or lymphedema, Dr. Sturm indicates you may want to look for 20 to 30 mmHg. This is especially important if you have significant swelling that doesn’t go away when you get up in the morning. Most pregnant people fall into this range.
"Most pregnant people feel best with a 20 to 33 mmHg strength sock," Dr. Summers explains. "This is a mid-weight range and is available without a prescription." If you have significant swelling or a chronic condition, your healthcare provider might recommend a high-strength compression that requires a prescription.
Remember your healthcare provider can always recommend what level of compression is best for you. Also note many people prefer graduated compression socks, which provide the tightest compression at the foot and ankle, which decreases gradually as it goes up the leg, says Dr. Tang. This can help to circulate blood, too.
Fabric of the Sock
According to Dr. Sturm, 80% of compression socks are made with a nylon blend. However, there are some that are made of wool, which may be ideal for people in colder climates. You may even find a few that are made of cotton, but these are typically not recommended for significant edema. "If someone has medical-grade swelling like lymphedema, I usually suggest they look for nylon fabrics," Dr. Sturm says. These are much stronger than cotton and provide better compression.
There are different types of weaves to consider, too. According to Dr. Sturm, a circular knit will not have any seams, but it is not as strong and does not reduce swelling as well as a flat knit. "Flat knit is a thicker, woven fabric that contains swelling better," she adds. "But that might be overkill for mild swelling."
It is best to talk with your healthcare provider about what type of weave would be best for your situation. If you just cannot get comfortable in compression stockings, Dr. Sturm indicates that compression leggings also are a great option. "You may even try athletic leggings to help with mild swelling," she says.
When to Wear Compression Socks
Typically, you wear compression socks during the day, especially if you are going to be on your feet a lot or you sit for long periods of time at a desk. You also may want to wear compression socks if you are going to be traveling. There is some evidence that compression stockings can help to prevent blood clots in the legs and are particularly useful while flying or traveling long distances by car, says Dr. Tang.
While there is no time limit on how long you can wear compression socks, you probably do not want to wear them 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Instead, put them on in the morning and take them off when they are no longer comfortable or when you are able to put your feet up instead.
Can I Sleep In Compression Socks While Pregnant?
Most healthcare professionals advise against wearing compression socks to bed at night. Not only are you less likely to experience swelling at night when your feet and legs are in line with your heart, but there also are some risks.
"I do not encourage [patients] to wear them at night due to the risk of tourniqueting," says Dr. Sturm. "In other words, compression socks can become like a tourniquet and cut off your circulation when you cannot control or feel it."
Taking the socks off at night also will allow your skin to breathe. In fact, compression socks can wick the natural oils away from your skin if worn for too long, Dr. Summers says. "Taking them off at night and applying a moisturizer will help to prevent dry skin," she adds.
How to Put on Compression Socks
When putting on compression stockings, it may be easier to get them on first thing in the morning before you get out of bed. Typically, your legs will have less swelling earlier in the day and the sock will go on a little easier. Here's how Dr. Sturm recommends putting on compression socks.
- Take the top of the stocking and roll it down to the heel, basically folding it in half, so that it is inside out.
- Avoid bunching it up like you would a sock because it will not stretch.
- Put your foot into the stocking and pull it up or unroll it over your leg.
- Smooth out any wrinkles once the stocking is in place.
- Consider getting a stocking donner or donning aid if you struggle to get the stocking up.
A Word From Verywell
Swollen feet and ankles late in pregnancy are common complaints, but that doesn't mean you have to grin and bear it. Compression socks may be just what you need to reduce the swelling and improve your comfort—especially toward the end of your pregnancy.
If you are experiencing mild swelling that did not come on suddenly, talk to your healthcare provider about compression socks and whether they would be right for you. If you are experiencing signs of a blood clot or preeclampsia, get immediate medical attention.
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