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Compression socks need to fit properly to do any good

June 2018

Couple at airport with cases
Compression socks can help make air travel safer

Medical advice is continually being updated as new information comes to light. One area which is increasingly being looked at is how we can keep fit when travelling by air.

This is an important issue today as so many people take longer flights for holidays or to visit relations.

Figures for last year for instance show that an astonishing 75 million people, more than the total population of the UK, passed through London Heathrow airport alone; and numbers are increasing year on year.

Along with all the packing, visa and ticket issues, for any flight over three or four hours the question of avoiding the risk of DVT is especially important. DVT or deep vein thrombosis is a blood clot that can develop in one of the deep veins in our body, and usually in the leg in the larger vein that runs through the muscles of the calf and the thigh. This becomes very serious indeed when a blood clot breaks off and enters the bloodstream, where it can flow up and cause blockages perhaps to one of the blood vessels in your lungs.

 DVT can be caused by inactivity, perhaps after an operation but also when sitting for some hours in an aeroplane with your feet down. Here, gravity is working against the flow of blood back to the heart. Also the deep veins in the legs only have one-way valves; to move blood back to the heart you need muscle contraction.

Today it is generally recommended that on longer flights, especially as we get older, we should look at wearing compression socks or stockings to help prevent DVT.

Compression socks work by applying gentle pressure on the leg tissues and walls of the veins, helping the blood in the veins return to the heart. They can also improve the flow of the lymph fluid that flows around the cells in the legs which can assist in reducing swelling.

Today compression socks are sold in most high street pharmacies and other stores, but it is important to ensure you get the right size. Compression socks are only beneficial if they fit properly, and an American report has shown that among 142 people hospitalized for DVT following surgery despite being told to wear compression socks, 26 per cent were wearing the wrong size and 29 per cent were not wearing them properly.

Other statistics confirm that compression socks must fit properly to be beneficial and ill fitting socks can cause damage, especially if too tight.

To ensure you get the right sock size is not always straightforward as different socks offer different sizing and measurements. But generally the first thing is to measure your own legs carefully; sometimes it can help to have someone else do this for you.

You will need a normal fabric tape measure; DIY metal tape measures won’t be accurate enough. If you take a range of measurements, then you will be able to check exactly the right size on the socks you buy.

Knee socks are the most common type of compression sock, although you can buy full length tights which require different measurements.

But for knee compression socks, you really need three measurements:

  1. The measurement around your ankle at the narrowest point, usually just above the knobbly ankle bone that sticks out on the outside of your foot.

  2. Your calf measurement. This needs to be measured around the widest part of your calf. If this isn’t easy to spot, push against the back of your calf with the flat palm of your hand; this will clearly show which spot is the widest.

  3. Your length measurement. This is the distance between the floor (in bare feet) and the bend right at the back of your knee. Again if you are not sure where this spot is, bend your knee and put your fingers in the middle of the bend at the back. The distance from here to the floor is the measurement you need.

But measurement alone is not enough. Really you also need to get the best pressure levels for your own health. Generally pressure socks can come in a range of pressures, often exerting between 15-20mmHg at the ankle; 20-30mmHg at the ankle and the strong compression of 30-40mmHg at the ankle, but there are many different pressure ranges depending on the brand of sock you choose.

Generally moderate compression, between 15 and 20 mmHg is considered a good base line to work on.

High street pharmacist Boots offer flight socks at 14-17 mmHg and measure their socks on average fittings for various shoe sizes. They also have a measuring chart on the same page.

Bear in mind ill fitting compression socks can actually increase the risk of DVT. You certainly don’t want them wrinkling up. It can be a very good idea to check with your doctor to ensure you are buying the correct socks, especially if you have any underlying health problems.

Of course also on a long flight you need to drink enough water, exercise in your seat and also walk around as much as you can. There are lots of tips online for keeping fit on an aircraft.

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