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Do Compressions Work? A look at the effectiveness of compression socks, shorts and shirts

19 Sep 2018

Unless you’re an athlete, have a specific medical condition, or are recovering from an injury, compression garments are not likely to be part of your wardrobe. Compression garments are exactly what the name says: a garment designed to compress muscle and tissues for a variety of reasons, such as helping to heal an injury or disease, improved performance, and accelerated recovery time. With benefits like these, it’s no wonder compression garments are popular in baseball and softball.

But do compression garments actually work for these purposes? Let’s take a look at the history of compression garments and the science surrounding them.

Ancient Beginnings

Compression garments have been a part of human history for a long time. As a baseball player, you know all about long seasons and extra innings, but we’re talking about a really long time. They can be traced all the way back to 5000 BCE, where drawings of soldiers with bandaged legs were discovered in the caves of Tassili n’Ajjer in the Sahara desert. Many other writings and illustrations throughout history point to the specific use of compression for therapeutic purposes through the use of tight bandages, laced stockings, and elastic bands.

In more modern history, the invention of nylon stockings for women in 1937 paved the way for development of the first compression garments using synthetic materials. Synthetics proved to be superior to organic materials in compression garments due to moisture-wicking properties that prevent rashes and chafing. This quality led to increased use of compression garments by athletes over time, with other reported benefits emerging as their use proliferated.

Types of Compression Garments

Compression garments are available in several forms, chosen depending on the usage model of the wearer. Shirts, shorts, pants, socks, stockings, sleeves, and full bodysuits are readily available for both men and women in a variety of pressure ranges. Pressure is denoted in mmHg (millimeter of mercury: the extra pressure generated by a column of mercury 1mm high).

  • 10-20 mmHg: available to anyone over the counter
  • 20-50+ mmHg: available by prescription only, requiring a trained professional to correctly fit the garment to the user

How tight the compression garment should be usually depends on what ailment(s) or symptoms the user is trying to address. When playing baseball and softball, your personal preferences will come into play, but you may want to consider things like avoiding a full shirt in favor of sleeves to avoid restricting your motion when at bat or throwing a ball. Likewise, if you choose a full bodysuit, you may hear about it from your teammates in the locker room. Compression garments can also be useful to those recovering from trauma or injury from baseball practice and games.

We’re baseball and softball players – not doctors – so we’ll be looking at the efficacy of compression garments in athletic applications instead of medical applications.

Benefits of Compression in Athletic Use

Compression garments are common in a variety of sports, including baseball, softball, football, basketball, volleyball, tennis, cycling, swimming, weight training, and running. In the athletic world, use of compression garments is widespread, with varied claims to benefits. These claims include:

  • Increased blood circulation
  • Skin temperature regulation
  • Decreased pain from muscle stiffness and soreness
  • Increased perception of body positioning
  • Reduced muscle recovery time
  • Improved clearance of metabolic byproducts of exercise
  • Reduced chafing and rash due to moisture-wicking properties
  • Improved overall performance

There are reported benefits from wearing compression pants or compression tights while working out prior to and after a baseball game or practice. Gradient compression garments are said to prevent fluid from pooling around the ankles, as well as ensuring blood flows in the proper direction. Added joint stability in the form of shock absorption is also touted as a benefit.

If a baseball player uses compression garments for weight training as well, there are additional advantages. It is thought that compression garments limit movement and prevent excessive damage to contractile muscle fibers, reducing the inflammatory response elicited by lifting heavy weights.

The health benefits of compression support tights are most notable among runners, who report that compression helps support major muscle groups during and after runs, aiding in performance and recovery. Since baseball players spend a good portion of the game running, these benefits directly correlate to this sport as well.

These claims piqued the curiosity of numerous researchers, who set out to discover whether there was any validity to them with a series of scientific studies.

Compression Garment Studies

Multiple scientific studies have been conducted on the purported effects of compression garments. These studies tested how compression garments affected performance while worn during an activity and how they affected recovery – two areas in which these garments are said to provide value.

Performance

Researchers have performed a variety of experiments over the years to test whether compression garments actually improved performance. In one such study, 16 highly trained male distance runners performed a series of runs on a treadmill at 3 different speeds, with and without lower-leg compression tights.

Metrics tested included ground-contact time, swing time, step frequency and length, and gait variability. Scientists concluded that there was little to no difference in the data produced through tests with and without compression garments.

However, researchers acknowledged the possibility of a placebo effect among test subjects who were regular wearers in their daily lives, who did show a slight improvement in running economy over subjects that never wore compression garments. Despite these anomalies, overall group performance was unaffected by the use of compression garments.

Studies testing other types of compression garments also showed that there was no real change in muscle performance during activity. But the results of their performance tests did not render compression garments a useless gimmick, as tests on recovery displayed rather different benefits of compression clothing for working out.

Recovery

While researchers were able to conclude on multiple occasions that compression garments do little to improve performance, other studies have demonstrated that they play a significant role in recovery.

Tests conducted within a 24-hour period after prescribed activities definitively showed that muscle swelling and soreness were reduced. Enzymes associated with soft tissue damage (creatine kinase (CK) and lactate dehydrogenase (LDH)) were decreased when full-body compression garments were worn.

These results are informative, but not entirely conclusive. The experiments did not take into consideration the exact amount of pressure exerted by compression garments, nor the specific tissue mass of each participant – metrics that are essential to calculating precise recovery data. There are not currently any publicly available studies specific to compression garment use for baseball or softball, which means you get to do your own experiments!

Why Wear Compression Garments?

None of the studies conducted on compression garments show that wearing them is harmful. Reduced chafing and rash is reason enough to wear them during baseball practice and games, regardless of the potential for improved recovery.

The placebo effect is a documented scientific phenomenon, so if you believe compression garments are improving your performance, you may very well experience those benefits. If wearing compression garments before, during, and after a day on the diamond makes you feel good, there is no scientific reason why you shouldn’t.