Can the Use of Compression Socks During Long-Haul Flights Prevent Deep Vein Thrombosis?

April 18, 2024

If you’ve ever flown on a long-haul flight, you may have heard about the risk of developing deep vein thrombosis (DVT). This is a serious health concern which involves the formation of blood clots in the deep veins of your legs. Passengers on long flights are at an increased risk. The good news is, compression stockings are often recommended as a preventive measure. But how effective are they really? Let’s dive into the details and review the evidence.

Understanding Deep Vein Thrombosis (DVT)

Before we examine the role of compression socks, it’s crucial to understand what DVT is and why it’s a concern in long-haul flights.

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Deep Vein Thrombosis is a condition in which blood clots (thrombus) form in the veins deep within your body. While DVT can occur anywhere, it most commonly affects the deep veins in the lower legs and thighs. The blood clot can either partially or completely block blood flow, causing pain and swelling. In more serious cases, a piece of the clot may break off and travel through your bloodstream to your lungs, leading to a potentially life-threatening condition known as pulmonary embolism.

During long flights, you are seated for extended periods, often with limited space to move around. This lack of movement can slow blood flow in your legs, increasing the likelihood of clot formation. The reduced cabin pressure and low humidity can also contribute to blood thickening, further increasing the risk of DVT.

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Role of Compression Stockings

Compression stockings, or socks, are specialized hosiery designed to improve blood circulation and prevent the formation of blood clots. They work by applying graduated pressure on your lower legs, hence the term ‘compression’. The pressure is highest at the ankle and decreases gradually towards the top of the stocking.

By squeezing your leg tissues and the walls of your veins, compression socks help blood in your veins return to your heart. They also reduce the diameter of major veins, which increases the velocity and volume of blood flow. This prevents blood from stagnating and clotting.

Compression Stockings and DVT: What do Trials Say?

Numerous clinical trials have examined the efficacy of wearing compression stockings to prevent DVT during long-haul flights. Let’s take a look at some of the findings.

One systematic review and meta-analysis comprising 11 trials involving 2,883 participants showed a markedly reduced risk of DVT in long-haul passengers who wore compression stockings. The review, published in the British Medical Journal, noted that the incidence of symptomatic DVT was 0.2% in the compression stocking group compared to 2.8% in the control group – a significant reduction.

Another trial involved 906 high-risk passengers (those with previous DVT, recent surgery, or known thrombophilias). The trial found that none of the participants in the compression stocking group developed DVT, while ten in the control group did.

However, it is worth noting that while these trials show promising results, the absolute risk of developing DVT during long-haul flights for most passengers remains very low.

When and How to Wear Compression Stockings for Flights

If you are considering wearing compression socks for your next long flight, there are some important points to bear in mind.

First, you should wear your stockings for the entire duration of the flight. This is because your blood circulation is most affected when you remain seated for a long time.

Second, make sure your stockings are well-fitted. They should be snug but not too tight, and there should be no loose or wrinkled areas. If possible, get your stockings professionally fitted.

Lastly, choose graduated compression stockings. These have a range of pressure that decreases up the leg, which is most effective for improving blood flow.

The Bottom Line

While the risk of developing DVT on a long-haul flight is generally low, wearing compression stockings can significantly reduce this risk. They are particularly recommended for high-risk passengers, and may also contribute to greater comfort during the flight by reducing leg swelling. However, they are just one aspect of DVT prevention. It is also important to get up and move around the cabin frequently, keep well hydrated, and avoid alcohol and sedatives, which can increase your DVT risk.

Compression Stockings: Types and how to Choose the Right One

There are different types of compression stockings, with varying levels of pressure, lengths, and styles. Understanding these differences will help you choose the right type to use during air travel, especially for long haul flights.

The first categorization is based on pressure levels. Compression stockings come in four types: mild (8-15 mmHg), moderate (15-20 mmHg), firm (20-30 mmHg), and extra firm (30-40 mmHg). For preventing DVT during flights, most experts recommend moderate to firm pressure level stockings. They provide sufficient pressure to boost blood circulation and prevent blood clots, without being too restrictive.

The length of the stockings is another important factor. There are knee-length and thigh-high compression stockings. Knee-length stockings are usually sufficient for most airline passengers. However, for high-risk individuals, such as those with a history of deep vein thrombosis or pulmonary embolism, thigh-high stockings might be more beneficial.

Styles and materials of compression stockings also vary. Some are open-toe, allowing more breathability, while others are closed-toe, providing more support. Similarly, the materials used can range from cotton and microfiber to sheer fabrics. It’s best to choose a material that you find comfortable and breathable.

Remember, it’s crucial to get your stockings professionally fitted. Ill-fitted stockings can either be ineffective or lead to discomfort and complications.

Overcoming Barriers to Wearing Compression Stockings

Some airline passengers may resist wearing compression socks due to misconceptions or minor discomforts. It’s crucial to address these barriers to ensure the effectiveness of this preventive measure against DVT.

The misconception that only the elderly or the ill need them is common. However, it’s worth noting that anyone can develop deep vein thrombosis, especially during long-haul flights. Age or health status may increase the risk, but they are not the only factors.

Physical discomfort is another barrier. Some people find wearing stockings to be too warm or too tight. Choosing the correct size and pressure level can often address this problem. Additionally, modern compression stockings come in a variety of materials and designs, some of which are quite fashionable, making them more comfortable and appealing to wear.

Lastly, the perceived hassle of wearing and removing stockings can deter passengers. However, the benefits of preventing a potential blood clot, which can cause serious health complications, far outweigh the minor inconvenience of wearing compression stockings during a flight.

Conclusion

In conclusion, the use of compression stockings or socks during long-haul flights can be an effective preventive measure against deep vein thrombosis. Clinical trials have demonstrated a significant reduction in the incidence of DVT among passengers who wore compression stockings. They’re particularly beneficial for high-risk passengers, such as those with a history of DVT, recent surgery, or known thrombophilias.

Choosing the right type of stockings – in terms of pressure level, length, style, and material – is key to maximizing their effectiveness and comfort. Overcoming the barriers to wearing stockings, including misconceptions and minor discomforts, is also crucial.

While compression stockings are a valuable tool, remember they are just one aspect of DVT prevention. Regular movement during the flight, staying hydrated, and avoiding alcohol and sedatives are also vital. By incorporating these preventive measures, you can make your next long-haul flight a safer and more comfortable experience.