How Much Do You Know About Blood Circulation?
Have you ever wondered how blood gets from Point A to Point B in your body? Even more importantly, do you know what happens when blood doesn’t circulate properly? Diagrams like the one to the left may seem intimidating, especially when it has confusing terms, such as “great saphenous vein” and “posterior tibial artery.”
Don’t get scared… You don’t have to be a scientist to understand the circulatory system (I promise!) I will explain everything in everyday language. And, knowing how circulation works can improve your quality of life.
What is Blood Circulation? Why Does it Matter?
Without blood, your organs would fail. So, different parts of your body cooperate to get blood to your heart (to receive oxygen) and to your organs (to deliver the oxygen it carried.) The main organ in this process is the heart. Arteries have the job of taking oxygenated blood from your heart to your organs and tissues. Veins take the deoxygenated blood back to your heart to be loaded up with oxygen again.
So, how is your blood circulation like traffic during rush hour?
Let’s use an illustration to understand why blood circulation matters. Imagine you are on a highway at rush hour. So many cars are on the road that you are barely inching along at a slow speed. Sometimes, you even have to stop and wait for a few moments before you can move again. After a while, you begin to worry that you will be late for your appointment.
The same problem can happen in your body with the circulation of your blood. Remember, blood’s job is to get oxygen (and nutrients) to your organs. If it’s “late,” then your organs will begin to suffer. Your body will let you know by producing some symptoms of distress.
The most common symptoms of slowed/interrupted circulation are:
- Throbbing or stinging pain in your limbs
- Muscle cramps
Almost everyone has experienced the first indicators of this issue. Some people call it “pins and needles.” You may have noticed this sensation after one of your arms or legs remains in the same position for too long. If you lie on a limb for an extended time, perhaps at night while you are sleeping, you may wake up thinking, “Wow, why can’t I feel my left arm? My arm has gone dead.” If this happens, moving or shaking your limbs should help your blood begin to flow again. After a few minutes, your arms will probably start to feel normal.
Such an episode doesn’t necessarily indicate a medical problem. However, if it happens frequently or for no apparent reason, you may have a circulatory issue. Over time, reduced blood flow in your extremities can lead to blood clots or nerve and tissue damage. Both conditions are dangerous.
Blood clots form when the blood circulation at one part of the body is disrupted. Just like the traffic jam, clots make it harder for the blood to flow back to your heart. If they get bad enough, they can even stop the distribution of oxygen and nutrients throughout your body. Sometimes, you can see evidence of blood clots on the surface of your skin. They may just look like an ordinary bruise.
Problems with blood clotting or circulation can contribute to serious medical issues, such as:
- Varicose veins
- Deep vein thrombosis
- Alopecia (hair loss)
- Erectile dysfunction
- Heart attack
- Peripheral artery disease
- Raynaud’s disease
Hopefully, you are a stranger to all of these diseases. And if you want to keep it that way, it’s essential to avoid developing poor circulation in the first place. Let’s talk about how you can.
Which part of the body has the highest chance of poor blood circulation, and why?
If you said the legs, you’re right. Unfortunately, this isn’t a game show, so you don’t win any money. But what you do get is some useful information on how to prevent circulation problems in your legs.
Why the legs? If you think about it, other than when you are sleeping, you spend a lot of time using your legs. If you regularly stand or sit for extended periods, you may soon start to suffer from venous reflux disease.
A Quick Introduction to Venous Reflux Disease:
Venous reflux disease (also known as venous insufficiency) is a medical condition affecting the circulation of blood in the lower extremities. Normally, one-way valves in the veins keep blood flowing toward the heart against the force of gravity. If the valves become weak and fail to close properly, they allow blood to flow backward. This reflux of blood can result in a number of clinical problems—edema, skin changes, venous ulcers, and varicose veins, to name a few.
Sounds scary, right? 😵 It is, but the good news is that you can help prevent the problem. There’s a tool that can relieve your muscles and promote better blood circulation. Teachers, nurses, retail workers, police officers, athletes, or anyone else who stands or sits for lengthy periods will want to learn about this useful tool… compression socks!
What are Compression Socks?
A German engineer, Conrad Jobst, invented compression socks. He got the idea from swimming. Well, he noticed that his venous leg ulcers felt better after he’d been in the pool for a while. Working along with a doctor named Otto Gauer, he was able to recreate a sock that gave his legs the same relief he felt in the pool. No water needed!
Though compression socks may look just like regular garments, they have a particular function. Jobst specially-designed these garments to improve the flow of blood in the legs and feet.
Otherwise known as circulation or support socks, they are produced with synthetic fabrics, so users experience a tight and stretchy fit. The pressure created by the snug material not only helps keep them in place but also encourages blood flow.
Types of Compression Socks
Compression socks come in a variety of styles and lengths. They even come in stocking form, from knee-highs to pantyhose. Knee-high is probably the most popular length; however, doctors may recommend thigh-highs to treat some medical conditions. Compression socks also differ in the levels of pressure they provide. To find out which type is right for you, you can ask your healthcare professional to measure you for a pair. They should never be painfully tight.
Are compression socks for you?
Anyone who wants to improve their blood circulation, relieve swelling, and give their feet and legs support can wear compression socks and stockings. From young athletes to working-age professionals to the elderly or disabled—you name it.
People of certain professions, such as flight attendants, office workers, teachers, and nurses like to wear compression stockings under their garments at work. Pregnant women, people recovering from surgeries, and those at risk or dealing with diabetes, varicose veins, and deep vein thrombosis (DVT) may wear compression socks as part of their healthcare routine.
But what exactly do compression socks do?
Regular socks may provide warmth and protect your feet inside your shoes. Compressions socks go beyond standard “sock duty” and put soft pressure on your legs and ankles. The blood vessels thus work more efficiently, and blood flows more freely. Because blood returning from the lower part of your body has to work against gravity to return to your heart, compressions socks can give your arteries a much-needed boost to get that deoxygenated blood where it needs to go.
As a result, these socks reduce aches and fatigue, ease swelling (edema) and help prevent ugly varicose and spider veins. Have you ever felt dizzy or light-headed after standing up for hours or standing up suddenly? Since compression socks make sure blood is always moving, they also reduce the likelihood of dizziness or blood clots.
Can you sleep in compression socks?
No, you shouldn’t sleep in compression socks. Compression socks apply graduated compression to your legs. In other words, they supply a constant amount of pressure to your circulatory system to aid the flow of blood back to the heart. When you are in a horizontal position for a long time, such as when you are lying down, your body doesn’t the same fight against gravity. Therefore, you don’t need the amount of pressure that you would if you were standing or sitting. It’s best, then, if you only wear compression socks when you are awake and active.
That said, some conditions may require a person to compression socks in bed, e.g., after surgery. A doctor may recommend mild compression socks (below 15 mmHg) in such a situation. Anything more would interrupt the blood circulation in your legs and feet.
Is it reasonable to wear compression socks every day?
For a healthy individual, there’s nothing unusual about wearing compression socks or stockings every day. Some people, especially with sitting or standing jobs, wear their pairs daily.
(Tip: Replace your ordinary stockings or socks with compression garments in your work attire.)
Others only use them when traveling long distances or when they experience heavy, achy, or restless legs. However, if you have a medical condition, your doctor will be the best one to advise you how often to wear your socks. Again, the effectiveness of your socks will depend on whether you choose the right level of compression for your lifestyle. Take good care of your legs!
How long should compression socks be worn?
It depends. As mentioned above, it is not recommended to sleep in your socks. A person doing a long shift of heavy manual labor may wear them for the duration of their working hours, but it wouldn’t be necessary to wear them when their legs don’t need the extra help. Most people who use them for work take them off when they get home. If you need to wear your socks for an extended period, you may decide to give your legs a break every couple of hours by taking them off for a few minutes at a time.
By way of contrast, if you are wearing them after surgery, perhaps you may wear them overnight. Compression socks, when appropriately used, can promote wound healing. To use them as a medical treatment, you would do well to consult a physician about how long you should wear them while on bed rest.
Can wearing compression socks be harmful?
Compression socks pose no significant safety risks when they are used correctly. Everyone who wears compression socks or stockings, including healthy individuals, should choose the right compression rating for their circumstances and follow his or her doctor’s instructions regarding their use.
Nevertheless, you may experience some minor undesirable effects if you wear compression socks. For example, you may experience allergic reactions to the material or see temporary dents in your skin where the socks pressed against your legs. If you experience discomfort or irritation, it’s often a result of wearing socks of the wrong size or pressure level. You may need to be measured again from time to time because factors, such as your weight, height, or level of activity, affect the fit of your socks.
Please consult with your doctor before you start wearing compression socks or stockings if you are suffering from these health conditions:
- Skin infections
- Pulmonary edema
- Peripheral neuropathy
- Acute neurological disorders
- Cardiogenic edema
- Chronic arterial insufficiency
- Primary osteoarthritis
What to consider when buying compression socks and compression stockings
Here are some things you need to consider when looking for the right compression socks to buy:
- Quality: Ensure your socks are made of good quality material before making your purchase. The fabric should be elastic enough to compress your legs properly. Compression socks made with inferior materials can cause itching and skin irritation.
- Compression level: Compression is the most important criterion. You can select socks based on four main categories of mmHg ( a unit of measurement for pressure): 8-15 mmHg (Low/Mild), 15-20 mmHg (Moderate), 20-30 mmHg (Firm) and 30-40 mmHg (Extra Firm). The higher the mmHg, the greater the pressure. The right one for you depends on your health conditions and what you are trying to achieve.
- Fit: Don’t compromise on the fit of your compression socks. It matters! The socks shouldn’t be too tight or loose. It sounds obvious, but knee-high socks should reach your knee. Opt for socks that correspond with the size of your body.
- Style: Compression sock styles differ based on the look and the function. For instance, those experiencing swelling in the ankles may choose to wear an ankle-length sock style. Those suffering from leg and joint pain may prefer thigh-high socks. Pregnant women may prefer support hose or specially-fitted stockings.
Knee-high or thigh-high compression socks?
One of the most common questions people ask is whether to buy knee- or thigh-high socks.
The key is preference. You may find one more convenient to wear than the other based on your clothing or footwear. According to some studies, knee-high compression socks are easier to use, more comfortable on the legs, and are less likely to cause skin injuries, such as rashes and sores. Why not buy a pair of each and make your own comparison?
To sum it up…
The importance of good blood circulation cannot be underestimated. A well-chosen pair of compression socks can help you avoid muscle fatigue after a workout or reduce swelling after an injury. A habit of wearing compression socks may mean you never have to deal with varicose veins or some of the other health problems that result from poor circulation. Compression socks are a small monetary investment, yet can provide great health benefits when used right.