Compression Socks: Benefits During Pregnancy and Postpartum

That heavy feeling in your legs after a long day on your feet? Those rings around your ankles when you take off your socks? The varicose veins that only seem to get worse as your baby grows? Unfortunately, these are all common occurrences for pregnant women, and they often worsen in the third trimester. Usually, they’re nothing to worry about, and compression socks (also known as compression stockings) might help keep the discomfort of leg swelling at bay.

Why should I wear compression socks?

As your baby grows, they place more and more pressure on the veins and lymphatic vessels in your pelvis and lower body. Combined with hormonal changes and increased blood volume, this can cause a backup of fluid in the legs and pelvis, as the fluid has a harder time traveling back up against gravity. You might notice swelling in your lower extremities, varicose veins in your legs, or swelling and pressure in your pelvis. While severe swelling can be a sign of something serious, mild to moderate swelling during pregnancy is quite common and can usually be managed with a combination of lifestyle strategies and support in the form of maternity compression socks. They can also help reduce leg pain or leg cramps and soothe aching feet. 

Do compression socks actually keep me healthier for the long term?

Yes, they can. The risk of developing a blood clot during pregnancy increases 4-5 times compared to women who are not pregnant. This is because there’s more pressure on the pelvic veins and structures, which can cause a backup in the circulatory system. Some of the risk of developing blood clots is genetic, and if you have a personal or family history of blood clots, speak to your care provider about ways to reduce your personal risk during pregnancy. 

Though a pair of compression socks won’t eliminate the risk of developing a blood clot, they do help to support your veins which improves your blood flow. Blood that is moving doesn’t have as much of an opportunity to form a clot. Compression plus moderate exercise like walking can support your system even more. 

Compression socks can also help keep varicose veins at bay, since they help support the vessels that might be buckling under the pressure of pregnancy. These can become uncomfortable, and may worsen as you age. Varicose veins don’t usually go away on their own, so it’s important to do what you can to prevent them from worsening during this time of increased pressure. If you're considered high risk for developing deep vein thrombosis (DVT), your doctor may recommend that you wear compression socks.

When should I ask my care provider about swelling?

Swelling during pregnancy, also known as edema, is usually not harmful, but it can be a sign of something more serious, like preeclampsia or a blood clot. It’s always a good idea to let your care provider know if you’ve noticed more swelling anywhere in your body during or after pregnancy. They can help you get a sense of your personal risk reduction strategies. Even if you’ve mentioned it before, sometimes things change quickly and you may need to call your ob-gyn or care provider to let them know. 

Check out the list below for signs that indicate you may need to call your care provider. 

  • Rapid progression of severe swelling
  • Swelling accompanied by headaches, blurred vision, or sensitivity to light 
  • Severe swelling in the hands and face
  • Swelling that occurs in one leg and not the other, or accompanied by redness, heat, or pain
  • Swelling accompanied by chest pain or difficulty breathing

If your swelling is mild to moderate, present in both legs, not painful or red, stable (meaning it might be more noticeable at the end of the day and might worsen slightly over time, but it doesn’t change much day-to-day), and reduces at night or when you put your feet up, you’re probably okay to wait until your next appointment to talk it over with your care provider. In the meantime, consider compression socks to help you feel better and reduce your risk of complications.

What style of compression is right for me?

The level of compression can vary for the many types and styles of compression and ranges from knee-high or thigh-high socks to full-length leggings or pantyhose. The best compression socks for you will cover the areas you feel need the most support, which is usually the lower legs and ankles during pregnancy. If you’re noticing pelvic pressure or varicose veins in the labia, compression leggings or bike shorts might offer you more specific support. Well fitted and lightweight compression is generally not harmful during pregnancy (though it’s always a good idea to check with your care provider about your personal needs), and it can protect your blood vessels and lymphatic vessels from overwhelm, reduce the risk of a blood clot, and help you feel more comfortable throughout the day. 

How should compression socks fit?

Maternity compression stockings should be snug but comfortable and ideally will have graduated compression (be tighter at the bottom than the top). A knee-high sock should come up just below the knee without folding or rolling over at the top. If your socks are pinching you at the knee or leaving deep indentations, you may want to try another size or style. A poor fit can actually make swelling even worse!

When should I wear them?

It's recommended to put on compression socks at the start of the day, and they can be worn throughout the day, especially if you’re going to be on your feet a lot. They do not need to be worn at night when you’re sleeping, as they can actually become too tight if you’re not moving for long periods of time. Your body has an easier time with blood circulation when you’re lying down, so you probably won’t need compression at night anyway.

What do I need to know about postpartum swelling? 

Most moms will see a significant reduction of swelling during the first few days after birth. However, some moms notice that their swelling sticks around for a while, particularly after a cesarean birth or use of IV fluids. 

Is swelling normal after a c-section?

Swelling is common after a c-section for many reasons, including the use of IV fluids and medication, reduced activity during initial healing, and lingering circulatory changes after pregnancy. Your body has been through a lot, and it may need some time to flush out all of that extra fluid. Swelling after a c-section can last up to a few weeks, but it should be steadily improving during that time. You can help move it along by moving around as much as you can, alternating between standing and sitting positions, elevating your feet when possible, and walking while wearing your compression socks. There is also research to show that compression socks worn immediately after surgery can help reduce the risk of blood clots related to the surgery, so keep those socks handy and wear them until you’re back on your feet again! 

Swelling all over your body can linger after a vaginal delivery, too, particularly if you needed IV fluids. The extra fluid retention, plus your still-enlarged uterus, and the fact that you’re not moving quite as much as usual in those early days can cause swelling to stick around a few days after birth. Keep moving as much as you are able, drink plenty of fluids, and you should be back to baseline in a few days. 

When should I call my provider about postpartum swelling?

Most of the time, continued swelling after delivery is not anything to worry about and will resolve on its own. However, just like during pregnancy, there are times that swelling can be a sign of something more serious. Take a look at the list below to see when to call your doctor about postpartum swelling. 

  • Swelling that gets worse instead of getting better
  • Swelling accompanied by headaches, blurred vision, or sensitivity to light
  • Swelling that occurs in one leg and not the other, or accompanied by redness, heat, or pain
  • Severe swelling in the hands and face
  • Swelling accompanied by chest pain or difficulty breathing

Do compression socks help with postpartum recovery?

Yes! Compression socks and other forms of lightweight compression can help move excess fluid along. They can also help keep your feet feeling more energized and rested after a long day, and help prevent blood clots and other circulatory issues. 

What else can I be doing to manage swelling during pregnancy and postpartum? 

As strange as it might seem, drinking more water can help reduce swelling during and after pregnancy. Water helps the fluid that’s in your legs flow more freely, so it has an easier time getting back up and out of your legs and out of your body in urine or sweat. It may be worth focusing on your fluid intake for a few days to see how it helps you. Drinking to satisfy your thirst is usually sufficient, and consider adding a glass or two to see how it helps your swelling - no need to chug! 

Prop your feet up on a stool whenever you can if you’re sitting down, and put a few pillows under your feet if you get a chance to lie down. Elevating the legs brings gravity into the picture and helps your body move the fluid along. 

Foot massage? Yes please! Foot massages are a lovely way to clear some fluid out of your feet, especially at the end of a long day. Keep in mind that the risk of blood clots is higher during pregnancy, so if you have swelling that’s only on one side or is painful, red, or warm to the touch, hold off on that foot rub and call your physician immediately. 

In summary, compression socks are an excellent tool for everyone on their feet, but especially for pregnant and postpartum women. It’s never a bad idea to support your system, especially if compression socks are covered under your insurance plan through Aeroflow Breastpumps.

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About the Author

Dr. Samantha Spencer, PT, DPT, is a Medical Advisor with Aeroflow Breastpumps. Dr. Spencer is a physical therapist who specializes in pelvic and perinatal care in the Asheville, NC, area where she offers in-home physical therapy to prenatal & postpartum individuals. She also developed the Strong Beyond Birth 28-Day Course to guide and support moms as they return to exercise, and offers virtual consultations to women everywhere.

Information provided in blogs should not be used as a substitute for medical care or consultation.

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