A long flight can be a headache. If getting through security and the terminal wasn't hard enough, you're often confined to a small space after you've boarded. It's not uncommon for passengers in economy class to find the person in front of you leaning on your lap. According to Time Magazine, “Reduced legroom is now the industry standard. In the early 2000s, the pitch of economy class seats used to be 34 inches (86 cm) to 35 inches; now it’s typically 30 to 31 inches…seats It's narrowed, averaging from about 18.5 inches to 17 inches." In such a small space, even stretching your legs can be a challenge.
Sitting on a plane, train, or car for too long can cause blood and fluid to build up in the lower legs and feet, which can lead to swelling. We call it potato feet.
Doctors advise all passengers to walk up and down the aisles to promote blood circulation. Unfortunately, this is not always practical advice for crowded flights with frequent bumps. Still, medical professionals have good reason to urge people to stand up on long-haul flights. Sitting in the same position for hours can cause serious health problems with potentially fatal consequences.
Fortunately, compression stockings provide support for frequent travelers. When you wear compression socks, you promote blood flow to your legs. Good circulation not only makes you feel more comfortable, but it also reduces the risk of dangerous blood clots. You may have noticed that many of the kiosks in the airport sell compression socks with packs that reduce pain and swelling. Seeing this, you might be wondering: Are these kiosk socks the best on the market? What should I look for in a pair of compression socks? What is the best compression level for air travel? In this article, we'll answer some of your toughest questions and give you some quick tips to make your next flight more enjoyable.
Knee-length compression stockings and socks work by putting gentle pressure on the calf. The pressure narrows the circumference of the vein. Imagine a garden hose. Passing the same amount of liquid through a narrower container results in an increase in liquid velocity. Stress forces your blood to flow faster, which improves your circulation. Veins carry deoxygenated blood from your lower extremities to your heart. Removing blood from your calf will allow you to avoid that heavy, painful feeling that can occur when you hold the same position for long periods of time. Harvard Health Publishing summarizes the medical benefits of compression stockings, explaining: "They are used to treat venous disease, heart failure, and even deep vein thrombosis."
When it comes to knee-high compression socks, there are two types of compression socks on the market. Uniform Compression provides a constant level of compression throughout the length of the sock. Progressive compression provides more pressure on the ankle and less pressure on the calf. Gradient pressure opposes gravity, forcing deoxygenated blood and waste fluid upward. A study in the British Journal of Surgery concluded: "Graduated compression stockings reduce the overall cross-sectional area of the limb, increase the linear velocity of venous blood flow, reduce venous wall dilatation and improve valve function." (Agu) Few studies have examined Efficacy of uniform compression as it is associated with the prevention of chronic venous disease, deep vein thrombosis (DVT) and other medical conditions. Gradient compression stockings have been shown to boost the circulatory system by helping the veins effectively remove waste fluids from the extremities.
What are the benefits of compression therapy for airline passengers?
Sitting for long periods of time puts you at risk for DVT, which occurs when blood clots form in the deep veins of the legs. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "900,000 Americans are affected by blood clots each year, resulting in nearly 100,000 deaths." DVT was dubbed "economy class syndrome" in 1977 due to its prevalence among frequent flyers and "Traveler's Thrombosis". In the scientific community, many have questioned whether travelers' blood clots are due to immobility or related to air travel. This is an area of continued research by medical researchers.
Whether or not air travel presents additional risks, frequent travelers should be aware that prolonged sitting in confined spaces such as cars, buses and trains can put them at risk. By wearing compression stockings, they reduce the likelihood of developing deep vein thrombosis. In turn, avoiding blood clots can prevent conditions including pulmonary embolism and post-thrombotic syndrome.
How is compression graded?
All compression socks, whether you buy them at an airport kiosk or online, should be marked with a compression level in millimeters of mercury (mmHg). The higher the mmHg level, the more stress your legs are put on. Gradient compression socks are the style recommended by most medical professionals for long-haul flights and should always include a label for the pressure range. For example, you might see socks labeled 8-15 mmHg or 50-60 mmHg. When you look at the pressure range, keep in mind that gradient compression socks are best for the ankle. Therefore, a higher mmHg measurement describes the pressure at the ankle. Lower numbers describe calf pressure.
Compression stockings and stockings generally range from 8 mmHg (lightest pressure) to 60 mmHg (extra tight pressure). You need to choose a compression range based on the medical benefits you wish to receive. If your goal is to find the best compression for a long flight, referencing the medical literature can be helpful. In a review of existing research on DVT in airline passengers, the researchers pooled the results for passengers wearing 10-20 mmHg and 20-30 mmHg graded compression stockings and concluded: "... Asymptomatic DVT is reduced by approximately 90% compared to socks.” (Clark15) Based on this evidence, airline passengers wishing to avoid DVT should wear socks with a pressure in the 10-30 mmHg range.
Additional Benefits of Light and Moderate Compression
Doctors usually recommend mild compression for first-time wearers. This is a great option for anyone looking to prevent swelling in the legs and ankles, varicose veins, spider veins, and leg pain.
Medium compression stockings offer many health benefits. They can relieve symptoms of severe edema or lymphedema. Moderate compressions provide sufficient pressure for the management of active ulcers. In addition, symptoms of post-thrombotic syndrome (PTS), orthostatic hypotension, and superficial thrombophlebitis were significantly reduced by moderate pressure. This is also the optimal level of compression for exercise recovery and endurance.
What's the best part? No matter where your wanderlust takes you, your legs will always feel like traveling in first class.
Additional Travel Tips for DVT Prevention
If you are looking for additional medical advice on avoiding DVT while traveling, please consult your doctor. For patients already at risk of developing DVT, pulmonary embolism, or post-thrombotic syndrome, doctors often prescribe anticoagulants for extra support on long-haul flights.
The UK National Health Service has the following guidance for anyone travelling:
Wear loose, comfortable clothing
- Do calf exercises at least every half hour -- lift your heels, place your toes on the floor, and lower them 10 times. Then raise and lower the toes 10 times
- go as far as possible
- drink a lot of water
- Do not drink alcohol or take sleeping pills ("prevention")
- buy the perfect socks
Make sure your socks feel good - even if your economy seat isn't comfortable.
You'll find thousands of compression garments at airports and pharmacies, medical supply stores, and Amazon. Some styles, like knee-length compression socks, are great for travel. Other styles—open-toed, thigh-high Lycra stockings—not so much. Remember, even if your flight is delayed or you miss the last train, compression socks should be comfortable to wear, hour after hour. Check out the reviews to see what people have to say about their experiences wearing compression socks while traveling.
When you buy a pair of socks from ZSZBACE, you can choose your shoe size and calf width. At the right size, your socks will apply the perfect pressure to increase blood flow without squeezing your skin. Socks that fit you will do better, keeping you comfortable for long periods of time no matter where you fly.
Check out our favorite air travel socks:
Nylon and Spandex SmartSilver Companions — 15-25 mmHg
Hygroscopic Merino Wool Guide - 15-20 mmHg