Are there any benefits in wearing compression sleeves?

Are there any benefits in wearing compression sleeves?

If you're a runner, you undoubtedly have come into contact with someone who wears compression sleeves as part of their running and recovery. Some brands and runners go as far as saying they will support your recovery from shin splints. But do they actually work?
Runner with calf sleeves

What are calf compression sleeves?

Also referred to as "compression socks", calf compression sleeves are compression garments designed to be worn during running, as part of your recovery or both. The theory behind these garments is to provide graduated compression, meaning higher compression at the ankle that decreases as it approaches the knee, fighting the effects of gravity and assisting the body in venous return (deoxygenated blood flowing back up to the heart).

Do compression sleeves help with recovery and performance?

Some research suggests that with an optimal level of consistent compression, an underlying arteries' walls will dilate, increasing the blood flow. However, Vercruyysen et al. showed in both short-distance and long-distance trail runners; calf compression sleeves offer no practical or physiological benefit greater than placebo; this included improvements in oxygen [1,2]. Meaning, if you feel like they're working for you, that's great, but it is currently being attributed to the placebo (often referred to as "sugar pill") effect.


Focusing on my own experiences with compression sleeves, I utilised them regularly. I definitely benefited from the placebo effect.  


Do they help marathon runners perform better?

Areces et al. assessed the efficacy of wearing compression stockings to prevent muscle damage and maintain running performance during marathon competition [3]. In this study, the researchers concluded that compression stockings did not improve running pace and did not prevent exercise-induced muscle damage during the marathon. Wearing compression stockings during long-distance running events is an ineffective strategy to avoid the detrimental effects of muscle damage on running performance.


What about triathlons?

Coso et al. investigated calf compression stockings' effectiveness to prevent muscular damage and preserve muscular performance during a half-ironman triathlon [4]. Once again, wearing compression stockings did not represent any advantage for maintaining muscle function or reducing blood markers of muscle damage during a triathlon event.


So, are they suitable for treating shin splints?

Whenever I see a post in a Facebook running group asking for help with shin splints, one of the first responses I see surrounds compression sleeves. A common injury for runners, we dive more into what shin splints are here.


Widely considered one of the top research groups into shin splints ("medial tibial stress syndrome"), Moen et al. are based at the University of Amsterdam. Moen at the team went as far as conducting a randomised controlled trial, comparing the use of calf compression sleeves in treatment compared to placebo [5]. The result? No effect.


In research, calf compression sleeves are widely considered to have no effect on the treatment of shin splints. We even used a calf compression sleeve variant as the placebo in the clinical trial of the Solushin (which is shown clinically to treat medial tibial stress syndrome). What happened in our double-blinded randomised controlled trial? The placebo group saw no notable pain severity changes, while the Solushin group, who utilised our patented Counter-Traction Technology, effectively treated the injury.


Why do calf compression sleeve brands claim they help?

As a former elite-level athlete, I relied on my compression sleeves to aid in my recovery. Perhaps it was placebo, or maybe superstition, but I relied on them during competition. In fact, I used to walk around in a full-body compression suit! When it came to shin splints, though, I didn't notice anything.


Was I a victim of false advertising regarding my recovery and treating shin splints? When I look at the marketing, the brands tend to have statements insinuating the sleeves will help rather than make claims.

  • "May help in the treatment of"
  • "May help support."

You and I are not victim's of false advertising here. In fact, while the evidence is suggesting calf compression sleeves don't help with recovery, we still need to acknowledge the noted placebo effect. You may get results because of it. 


Concluding Verdict

I came into this blog intending to write purely on why not compression sleeves aren't suitable for treating shin splints; however, I found a lot of research that challenged my previous beliefs regarding recovery. For those who feel they are getting results; amazing. While I would suggest you look at the other contributing factors (maybe you had a lower volume week or you've addressed some bio-mechanical faults?), I am quite happy to hear you're back on track to running faster.


No doubt I will become victim of "you're only choosing research papers that suit your point of view!" To those individuals, I don't want to throw compression sleeves completely out the door here. I am open to hearing your thoughts. Perhaps you've seen a study that suggests otherwise? Maybe other positive outcomes that aren't mentioned in this post? I would love to review it and include them. 


While my superstition used to lead me to buy compression sleeves to recover, I am pretty confident that the research is pretty conclusive; particularly regarding shin splints (medial tibial stress syndrome).


I don't plan on buying calf compression sleeves anytime soon.


References:

  1. Vercruyssen F, Gruet M, Colson SS, Ehrstrom S, Brisswalter J. Compression Garments, Muscle Contractile Function, and Economy in Trail Runners. Int J Sports Physiol Perform. 2017 Jan;12(1):62-68. doi: 10.1123/ijspp.2016-0035. Epub 2016 Aug 24. PMID: 27081007.
  2. Vercruyssen F, Easthope C, Bernard T, Hausswirth C, Bieuzen F, Gruet M, Brisswalter J. The influence of wearing compression stockings on performance indicators and physiological responses following a prolonged trail running exercise. Eur J Sport Sci. 2014;14(2):144-50. doi: 10.1080/17461391.2012.730062. Epub 2012 Oct 16. PMID: 24533521.
  3. Areces F, Salinero JJ, Abian-Vicen J, González-Millán C, Ruiz-Vicente D, Lara B, Lledó M, Del Coso J. The use of compression stockings during a marathon competition to reduce exercise-induced muscle damage: are they really useful? J Orthop Sports Phys Ther. 2015 Jun;45(6):462-70. doi: 10.2519/jospt.2015.5863. Epub 2015 Apr 21. PMID: 25899215.
  4. Del Coso J, Areces F, Salinero JJ, González-Millán C, Abián-Vicén J, Soriano L, Ruiz D, Gallo C, Lara B, Calleja-Gonzalez J. Compression stockings do not improve muscular performance during a half-ironman triathlon race. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2014 Mar;114(3):587-95. doi: 10.1007/s00421-013-2789-2. Epub 2013 Dec 13. PMID: 24337671.
  5. Moen MH, Holtslag L, Bakker E, Barten C, Weir A, Tol JL, Backx F. The treatment of medial tibial stress syndrome in athletes; a randomized clinical trial. Sports Med Arthrosc Rehabil Ther Technol. 2012 Mar 30;4:12. doi: 10.1186/1758-2555-4-12. PMID: 22464032; PMCID: PMC3352296.


About the author:

Ben Lindsay is the Managing Director and engineer behind the Solushin medical device. A former national medalist swimmer, Ben aspires to learn from physicians, physiotherapists and podiatrists so he can develop tools to improve the quality of care for their patients.

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