Compression Sleeves: Good or Gimmick?
Of course, you’ve seen them on weekend warriors and professional athletes and all types of athletes in between…compression sleeves worn on the arms, elbows, wrists, knees, calves, and ankles.
Some are woven with copper, some are touted as having different weaves for support in specific areas, some claim to be cooling and some have fun stripes and sprints that make a fashion statement.
So are these compression sleeves beneficial or just a gimmick or maybe a little bit of both?
What are compression sleeves?
Compression sleeves are tight, open-ended, elasticized fabric tubes that can be worn on the arm, elbow, wrist, knee, lower leg or ankle. Those that are made to be worn over a joint usually are constructed to accommodate the joint and its range of motion.
There are two types of compression fabric—sports grade and medical-grade. Medical-grade compression fabric is most often used to make compression stockings, which are prescribed for medical conditions such as edema and deep vein thrombosis, to name just two.
One of the main differences between sport- and medical-grade compression fabrics is that medical-grade fabric has gradual compression—tighter around the ankle for instance—and sport-grade fabric usually has consistent compression throughout.
Photo from Pixabay
A history of compression sleeves
Although compression has been used in wound and injury care for thousands of years, it wasn’t until the 1940s and ’50s that modern compression garments began to be manufactured.
German mechanical engineer and inventor Conrad Jobst is credited with crafting the first medical-grade compression garments, borne from his personal battle with chronic venous insufficiency.
The sports compression garments we know today were popularized by NBA player Allen Iverson, who in 2001 was suffering from a severe case of bursitis of the elbow, which would later require surgery. The trainer of the Philadelphia 76ers, Iverson’s team at the time, cut a length of compression stockinette for Iverson to wear over his elbow during the January 21 game.
Iverson scored 51 points that night wearing this make-shift shooting sleeve and sport-grade compression gear was born.
The use of sports compression sleeves
Sports compression sleeves are predominantly used for pain relief, injury prevention, and recovery.
Compression sleeves can be used to alleviate the pain of shin splints, bursitis, tendinitis, cramps, spasms, sprains and tears.
They can be used to recover from a strenuous workout or from running a long-distance race, for example. And wearing compression sleeves on a regular basis is thought to prevent both overuse and repetitive motion injuries.
How sport compression sleeves work
The main mechanism of compression sleeves is that they constrict the blood flow of the body’s veins (which are closer to the skin’s surface) forcing the blood back to the heart through the arteries. Without the compression, the blood would return to the heart on its own sweet time but the compression speeds up the process and so increases venous blood flow.
With this increase in venous blood flow comes an increase in the speed at which the by-products of the muscle contraction process can be flushed out. These by-products—like lactic acid, for example—are things that cause muscle fatigue. So clearing them from the bloodstream more quickly and efficiently is a good thing for an athlete.
The second mechanism of compression sleeves is that they limit the vibration of the muscle when the foot strikes the ground during running, to use one example.
This muscle vibration is thought to contribute to delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). The theory is that if you limit the muscle vibration, you may limit the degree to which you are hobbled by DOMS on the second day after a tough workout.
CCO Public Domain from pxhere
But, do compression sleeves work?
All of this information is very plausible and so many professional athletes wear compression sleeves of one kind or another that there has to be something to it, right?
I have worn them myself when I had a problem with my calves cramping mid-run. One time the cramps were so bad that I had to have my son, who only had his learner’s permit at the time, drive to my location and pick me up. Luckily, it wasn’t terribly far.
After I wore them for a couple of days, the calf cramps were no longer an issue. Whether it was the compression sleeves, an increase in hydration, mind over matter or a combination of all three, I can’t be sure.
Despite positive anecdotal evidence like my own experience, research studies on the effectiveness of wearing compression sleeves vary in their results.
Some studies show that wearing compression sleeves increases tissue oxygen levels before and after exercise and during some low-intensity cycling. Higher levels of tissue oxygen saturation facilitate energy production. The studies—“Changes in Tissue Oxygen Saturation in Response to Different Calf Compression Sleeves” in the Journal of Sports Medicine and “Changes in tissue oxygen saturation with calf compression sleeve: before, during and after a cycling exercise” in the Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness—both were published in 2015.
An earlier study came to similar conclusions but showed no difference in active running performance for those wearing compression sleeves versus those without. Titled “Compression sleeves increase tissue oxygen saturation but not running performance,” the study was published in the November 2011 issue of the International Journal of Sports Medicine.
And yet another study concluded that runners who wore compression garments—sleeves, socks, tights and/or shorts—may have improved endurance due to improvements in muscle temperature, biomechanical variables, and running efficiency, among others. Published in the December 2016 issue of the journal Sports Medicine, the study is titled “Is There Evidence that Runners can Benefit from Wearing Compression Clothing?”
Given the wide-ranging results of these and other studies and the popularity of compression sleeves, one might wonder if there is a placebo effect at play here.
A 2013 study, “Bringing light into the dark: effects of compression clothing on performance and recovery,” published in the January issue of the International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance, doesn’t discount the placebo effect.
What to look for in compression gear
Prices for compression garments run the gamut. For instance, calf sleeves can be had for less than $10 to more than $50. Compression gear can be found at running-specialty stores, national sporting good stores, discount department stores and online, to name just a few shopping options.
Many believe that the more expensive the garment, the greater the compression, which is not always true. The compression sleeves I purchased were $20 online and provide plenty of bang for the buck.
Make sure the compression garments you are shopping for are specifically meant for recovery and injury prevention.
When shopping for sleeves, whether they are for the arm or the leg, take a measurement of the widest part and purchase the size of the sleeve that corresponds to that measurement.
Despite the lack of consistent positive research, the reasonably priced compression sleeves might be a sound investment, even if the benefit you get from them is all in your head.
- Object of Interest: The History of the Allen Iverson Sleeve, website ,
- Compression socks, website ,
- Changes in Tissue Oxygen Saturation in Response to Different Calf Compression Sleeves., online journal ,
- Changes in tissue oxygen saturation with calf compression sleeve: before, during and after a cycling exercise., online journal ,
- Compression sleeves increase tissue oxygen saturation but not running performance, online journal ,
- Is There Evidence that Runners can Benefit from Wearing Compression Clothing?, online journal ,
- Bringing light into the dark: effects of compression clothing on performance and recovery., online journal ,
- You Asked: Does Compression Gear Really Work?, website ,
- Considering Compression Gear, website ,