Why You Should Wear Compression Socks for Flying
People who often travel by plane know that it isn't uncommon to experience leg swelling during or after a long flight. That swelling occurs because there isn't a lot of room to move your legs on a plane, and when you aren't able to move your legs, your veins have a harder time circulating blood back up to your heart. By wearing compression socks, a lot of people have been able to greatly reduce the amount of swelling in their legs post-flight.
But how do compression socks help? Let's start by talking about what causes your legs to swell in the first place.
When you sit with your feet on the floor for a long time, blood starts to pool in your legs. We mentioned above that inactivity makes your legs swell, but the reason they swell is that the blood that should be moving back up to your heart stays where it is. In more serious cases, especially for people with chronic venous insufficiency (CVI), the blood might even start flowing backward. That accumulation of fluid is what causes swelling, blood clots, and, in rare cases, pulmonary embolisms. So, if we want to combat the swelling that happens during long flights, we need to figure out a way to promote better blood circulation from our legs to our hearts.
Did you know that it's not just your leg veins but also your calf muscles that are responsible for getting the blood back up to your heart? Compression socks apply gentle pressure to your ankles and stimulate muscle contraction in your calves to encourage your blood to move in the correct direction: up. After all, when your calf muscles aren't able to contract, fluid retention is made worse, which could make you more vulnerable to blood clots, also known as deep vein thrombosis (DVT). If you're already at a higher risk because of your age, weight, pregnancy, or cancer diagnosis, sitting in a cramped space that allows little to no movement for five or more hours can cause swelling and tingling, as well as leave you more susceptible to pulmonary embolisms. A pulmonary embolism is a fatal condition that happens when a blood clot travels from another part of your body, most often the legs, to your lungs. By wearing compression socks, which promote better blood circulation between your legs and your heart, you can combat the problem of swelling (and more serious problems) at the source.
So, are compression socks okay for everyone to wear on long flights? If not, who should avoid wearing them?
If you aren't sure whether you should wear compression socks during a flight, we recommend speaking with your doctor before purchasing or wearing a pair. Your doctor may tell you that wearing compression socks is not a good idea for you, especially if you have an arterial insufficiency, some kind of nerve damage, or even diabetes. On the other hand, people with other medical conditions could greatly benefit from compression socks, like venous insufficiencies, histories of blood clots, and medical conditions that make them more likely to experience deep vein thrombosis (DVT).
No two pairs of compression socks are created equally. Even if your doctor clears you to wear compression socks, make sure you discuss the different kinds of socks and pressures available to you. Some levels of compression require a prescription while others can be bought over the counter, and people with different medical conditions or going to have different needs.
If you've been cleared by a physician to wear compression socks, here are a few tips and tricks for how and when to put them on before your next long flight.
Compression socks can be a little tricky to put on, especially if you've never worn them before, so practice a few times at home before your flight to make sure you know exactly what you need to do when the time comes. One of the easiest ways to put them on is to flip them inside out until only the toe is right-side in--then, putting your toes inside, gently roll the rest of the sock up and over your foot, ankle, and calf. If wearing the socks is painful, you probably bought the wrong size, so remove them and return them (if possible) instead of forcing yourself to wear them.
Wondering when you should put on compression socks before a flight? Don't wait until you're on the plane to wear them. There isn't a lot of room to move, and if you're not used to wearing them, trying to put them on in the plane could be awkward and disastrous. It's safe for most people to wear compression socks for extended periods, so don't worry about having them on for too long. While you can put them on before you even leave for the airport, we recommend waiting until you're at your gate waiting to board your flight. That way, you're still giving yourself plenty of room and time to get them on correctly, but you're also not as likely to experience some of the discomforts that compression socks can cause when worn incorrectly.
Some of the uncomfortable side effects that can occur when compression socks are worn for too long or aren't sized correctly include loss of circulation in the legs, chafing, and bruising. We would recommend limiting yourself to 16 hours of wearing them, especially if it's your first time using them, but keep in mind that other factors affect how your skin will react to them, like the dryness of the air and the uncertainties involved with air travel.
Here are a few other ways to prevent swelling on your next long flight:
- Stay hydrated.
- Walk around the plane once every hour.
- Flex your ankles from your seat every 30 minutes.
- Keep your feet elevated for as long as possible.
- Go for a 30-minute walk before your flight.
- Wear loose-fitting clothing.
- Shift positions in your seat, but try to avoid crossing your legs.
- Avoid alcohol.