Compression – What Is It and How Does It Work?

knee compression

A common recommendation for a range of health conditions, from arthritis to varicose veins to carpal tunnel syndrome, is compression. Whether it’s encapsulating a sore joint with a compression wrap, wearing compression gloves over your hands, or slipping compression hose over your leg, the list of compression aids seems to go on and on.

So what exactly is “compression” when it comes to injuries and illness and how does it help your body? This essential compression guide has you covered:

What is Compression and How Does It Work?

Compression, or the act of compressing, plays an important role in tissue repair and recovery. Most literally, compression involves the squeezing of tissues (muscle, ligament, tendons) which ultimately reduces the total volume of those tissues and the fluids inside them. Compressing tissues does a handful of things:

Improves blood circulation – compressing soft tissue encourages greater blood circulation by forcing your body to use deeper veins and blood vessels to transport blood (in addition to the more superficial veins). Consistent optimal compression has also been shown to dilate arterial walls and improve blood velocity through veins, all which contribute to better blood flow around the body.

Protects skin – compression garments worn during physical activity can help protect the skin from cuts and scrapes which might occur (i.e. during a soccer game). They also help trap heat inside so as to regulate body temperature when working out or playing sports in cooler weather.

Stabilizes muscles and joints – muscle vibration which occurs after moderate to vigorously intense activity can be quelled with compression. By stabilizing the muscle in this way, you may be able to prevent further muscle fatigue. Same goes for over-stressed joints; compression can help relieve inflammation and prevent exhaustion.

Uses of Compression

Whether you’re working, exercising, resting, or recovering, compression can play an important role in your life:

During exercise – many athletes sport compression garments during their training or gameplay to aid their performance. The belief is that improved circulation during play will help their muscles get the oxygen and nutrients they need to keep supplying energy and both limit an athlete’s time to exhaustion as well as prevent delayed muscle soreness in the days to follow.

During long job shifts – compression hose or leg sleeves are designed to offer what is known as a graduated compression where the compression is tighter at the bottom of the leg and looser towards the top. They can help improve the return of deoxygenated blood from the legs and feet back up to the heart to prevent (and treat) conditions like varicose veins which often develop from repetitively long periods of standing or sitting (i.e. during a nursing shift).

Following a soft tissue injury – a key part of the R.I.C.E. method (rest, ice, compression, elevation), compression is often used as an integral avenue in the treatment soft tissue injuries like sprains, strains, tendonitis and shin splints. After icing and elevating the injured limb, compressing it with a wrap or other wearable aid can help diminish swelling by bolstering circulation and pushing out built-up waste byproducts like lactic acid. Less swelling often equates less pain too.

For arthritis – therapy compression gloves are often worn to aid pain and inflammation associated with rheumatoid arthritis which affects the hands. The compression itself can reduce swelling and improve circulation to stiff joints as well as trap in heat to provide soothing pain relief.

Final Thoughts

While compression can work towards preventing certain conditions or treating them, it is not a complete treatment in itself. Any underlying injury or illness which may be aided by compression should itself be diagnosed by a doctor so you can formulate a comprehensive treatment plan together.

For example, if you experience frequent joint pain in your hand, you should see a doctor so they can find out if it is rheumatoid arthritis, an autoimmune condition. Compression aids may help, but knowing exactly what you have will also allow the doctor to recommend additional remedies like massage, anti-inflammatory foods, and medicine.

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