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The History of Compression Socks

various graphic compression socks lined up

Compression socks, also called compression stockings, are long socks that apply pressure to the legs in order to promote blood flow. People who stand all day, like nurses, commonly experience what is called venous stasis, which is where veins have trouble getting blood to where it needs to go. It mostly happens in the legs because that’s where veins have to fight gravity the most. Venous stasis in the legs causes blood to pool there and can lead to complications like varicose veins, blood clots, and even death through embolisms. Compression socks effectively prevent these things from happening.

However, one of the most common complaints about compression socks is that they are ugly. Cutieful’s founder noticed this himself during his 20-year career in healthcare. He also noticed that nurses had little opportunity to accessorize with strict scrub and color requirements. Those observations came together and inspired us to create our own line of graphic compression socks.

Many sources on the web cite pre-WWII (around 1935 specifically) as the birth time of compression socks. While that’s true in the case of the compression socks we know today, compression socks actually have a history that dates back thousands of years.

The Early Stages

The earliest recorded use of compression socks comes from Neolithic period, also called the New Stone Age. Cave paintings from around 5000 BCE depicted soldiers with bandaged legs. While it’s impossible to know whether these bandaged legs were done because of the benefits of compression or as some sort of ritual, this is generally considered to be the first recorded evidence of compression therapy.

The next recorded mention of compression therapy didn’t show up until thousands of years later, when the Edwin Smith Papyrus was purchased by an antique collector of the same name. It is the world’s oldest surgical document, dated to around 1600 BCE. Among other things, the scroll discusses mechanical compression therapy for legs.

The next significant documentation of compression therapy took another thousand years to arrive. Hippocrates, the doctor after whom the famous Hippocratic Oath is named, wrote that he used compression bandages to prevent blood from pooling in patients’ legs sometime between 450 and 350 BCE.

The Middle Ages

Things continued on the same way for many years—physicians throughout the world documented their use of tight bandages to treat leg pain. It wasn’t until 1600 CE that someone actually proved and documented the link between venous stasis and compression. That someone was William Harvey, and his discovery brought compression therapy into the mainstream. Following Harvey’s discovery, new methods of applying compression to legs sprung up: laced stockings, elastic bands, and bandages with adhesives on them. Harvey’s findings set the tone for compression therapy today.

Now

It was another 200 years before compression therapy was linked to the most deadly problem it treats: pulmonary embolisms. Pulmonary embolisms are where a blood clot forms somewhere in the body (usually the legs) and ends up in the lungs, where it cuts off blood flow and can lead to death. German phlebologists Fisher and Lasker discovered in the late 1800s that applying pressure to the legs reduces the likelihood that a blood clot will form there.

Next, in the 1950s compression socks caught on in North America. They had already been popular in Europe for several decades, but took a little longer to catch on in America. Since then, various studies have shown a handful of extra benefits to compression socks—reducing soreness after exercise, prevent leg swelling, etc.—but they have pretty much remained the same for the past hundred years.

Why compress?

Nurses often complain of sore feet and legs after spending long hours standing and walking around the hospital. While it’s easy to write these pains off as just a part of the job, they come with a slew of health issues that should not be ignored. One of the most common issues is varicose veins, which is when veins collapse because they cannot properly move blood up the legs. The result is painful, swollen legs that have permanent purple marks where the veins collapsed. While compression socks won’t cure existing varicose veins, they will reduce the risk of veins collapsing in the future and reduce symptoms associated with them, like pain and swelling.

Another benefit of compression socks is that they reduce the risk of deep vein thrombosis, which is where a blood clot forms in a deep vein in the leg and gets stuck. This also causes pain and swelling, and the blood clot has the potential to dislodge and get caught elsewhere, causing an embolism. These can be fatal. Fortunately, nurses aren’t at high risk for embolisms since they stand and walk all day. Embolisms are most likely to form in people who hardly move their legs at all, like truck drivers or patients recovering from injuries.

So, why compress? Here’s why:

  • You will feel better
  • Blood will flow from your legs like it should
  • You will be at reduced risk for issues related to reduced blood flow in the legs

Check out our catalog of compression socks to find your perfect fit today!

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