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Experts say compression socks could be the key to comfier traveling — 7 to shop

Calling all frequent flyers! These socks could be just what you need.
Courtesy Zoe Malin

If you've ever noticed that your legs or feet feel swollen and uncomfortable during a long flight or after a day on your feet, you might benefit from adding a pair of compression socks to your closet.

According to experts, compression garments can have numerous benefits, ranging from helping with recovery after major surgery to alleviating some of the stiffness you might feel after a red-eye flight. But is there anyone in particular who can benefit from them? And is there a difference in the various options available?

We spoke with Dr. Kellen Scantlebury, physical therapist and founder of Fit Club NY, and Dr. Karena Wu, owner and clinical director of ActiveCare Physical Therapy, to get all the details. Plus, we shared some of our favorite options on the market — including a Shop TODAY Travel Gear Awards winner!

What are compression garments?

"Compression gear is technically a tight sock or stocking," Wu says. "When someone uses compression gear, the whole point is to minimize or prevent fluid buildup in a body part."

When you stand or sit for a period of time, the fluid in your body moves down toward your legs, "because of gravity," Wu adds. This can cause pressure, pain and uncomfortable swelling in your lower half.

"The basic science behind [compression gear] is helping improve blood flow and blood circulation," Scantlebury suggests. "That compression, or that constriction, actually helps assist with the fluid being pumped and moved throughout the system."

Scantlebury adds that this can be particularly helpful in medical cases where it's beneficial to reduce uncontrolled swelling. For those post-op or those with lymphedema, swelling is common and compression garments are often recommended for recovery and to manage the discomfort. For those feeling the effects of swelling from long periods of travel or from working on their feet all day, compression socks can provide a bit of relief.

For travelers, Scantlebury says that "a lot of people's feet swell up when they go on planes" due to the change in pressure. "Simple compression socks are great to help control that swelling."

What are the different types of compression socks?

According to Wu, there are three main types of compression socks: Anti-embolism (typically reserved for medical use), graduated compression socks and general nonmedical support garments.

With graduated compression socks, the level of compression is greater at the foot (around your ankles or calves) with a looser fit at the end. This option provides more circulation and improvement in oxygen flow. "Which is great, because typically, distally — or further away from the heart — is where things pool, so I like those," Scantlebury adds.

The nonmedical stockings are some of the most common ones you'd find from major retailers, Wu says. However, this style may provide lower levels of compression.

How is compression measured?

When looking at compression garments, you'll often see them labeled with measurements in millimeters of mercury (mmHg).

"That's the metric for how much pressure is getting applied from the sock," Scantlebury summarizes. You'll typically see anywhere between 20 to 60 mmHg. "Anyone with more severe swelling may want to give higher pressure gradients a try."

Can compression socks help improve performance?

Aside from their potential benefits for travelers, nurses and teachers (or anyone else who spends a lot of time on their feet), some people have also been interested in whether they can help performance for exercises or sports. While it may help with temperature regulation, many of the performance benefits are likely placebo, Scantlebury hints. "They think they perform better, so for me, that's enough."

Shop TODAY Travel Gear Awards winners

Wanderlust Travel Compression Socks

Award: Best Overall Compression Socks | Category: Compression Socks

Made with a cotton, polyester and nylon blend, these compression socks don't feel much different compared to other pairs of socks you own, but the effects prove to be more beneficial. With goals such as reducing swelling, promoting blood flow and decreasing muscle strain, Shop TODAY deputy editorial director Alexandra Deabler gave these a perfect rating.

While she wore them while commuting and at work, they helped to "reduce swelling" when stationary for long periods of time.

Compression socks and sleeves to try

If you're interested in trying them out, we rounded up some other bestselling and reviewer-loved options that you can shop now.

One thing to keep in mind when considering the fit: "There should be no discomfort and no pain," Scantlebury emphasizes. "It should just feel snug and tight."

Laite Hebe Medical Compression Socks

One Shop TODAY contributor said these compression socks kept her comfortable during hours of traveling, saying she "didn't experience any muscle stiffness." As an added bonus, they even helped to keep the post-flight recovery time to a minimum. "It was when I got home and started changing out of my travel clothes that I noticed how comfortable my feet felt while wearing my compression garments," she said. "In addition, they were less swollen and painful than usual."

TechWare Pro Ankle Brace Compression Sleeve

According to the brand, these compression sleeves offer pain relief from sprains and muscle fatigue as well as a "no-slip fit" for practically any activity. Reviewers have scored the pair high for features like the range of motion, support and comfort. One reviewer even wrote that they wished they found them sooner, especially after discovering a bone spur from an injury they suffered three decades ago. "I used this brace for the first time while hiking a waterfall trail and could not be happier," they said. "Normally, my ankle starts to throb as soon as I sit down, especially with uneven terrain. After this hike, I had absolutely no pain for the first time in a very long time. The brace feels like a tight sock and fits perfectly in a shoe. I can't believe I waited all these years..."

Charmking Copper Compression Socks

This set comes with three pairs of 15 to 20 mmHg compression socks — and it's marked down to just $14 right now! The bestselling socks are designed with a special silver fiber, which the brand says aids in moisture and odor control.

SB Sox Compression Socks (20-30mmHg)

"These socks are AMAZING!!" wrote one Amazon reviewer who said that they spend a lot of time on their feet (between five to 10 hours) for work. "Total game changer. My legs feel energized and relieved from the fatigue (without wearing them). They are a nice weight without making me hot and the Small fit perfectly. I have worn them under jeans, leggings and khaki style pants."

Rymora Leg Compression Sleeve

If you're looking for something that will target swelling or discomfort specifically on your calves, these sleeves seem like a great choice. They have a non-slip cuff to help prevent them from sliding down during movement. For the best fit, the brand recommends referencing the size chart on the product listing.

Physix Gear Sport Compression Socks

These bestselling compression socks are said to feature graduated compression, with pressure spanning from 20 to 30 mmHg. They come in multiple color combinations, ranging from black and pink to beige.

Is there anyone who shouldn't wear compression garments?

While they offer great benefits, compression socks aren't for everyone. Scantlebury says that he wouldn't recommend them for people with sensation issues. Also, those who are pregnant should consult with their doctor before trying.

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