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What is compression clothing, and does it work?

You’ve probably seen professional athletes like LeBron James wear snug-fitting sleeves and leggings during games. These garments, called compression clothing, are thought to improve athletic performance and speed recovery by increasing blood circulation, thus delivering more oxygen to the muscles and speeding up the removal of acids from the muscles.

But does the compression clothing trend really work?

Athletes who wear compression clothing claim they recover faster and experience less fatigue and muscle soreness. While some research does suggest that compression clothing may improve recovery when worn by some athletes, the benefits were only seen when the apparel was worn for a full 24 hours after exercising.

It’s also important to keep in mind that studies conducted on compression clothing utilized newly purchased garments or custom-made compression clothing. Repeated washings and wears may reduce the compression of the garment, thereby reducing its impact.

The compression clothing trend goes as far back as 2001, when basketball star Allen Iverson scored 51 points in a game the first time he donned a long compression sleeve on his right arm. But Iverson wasn’t wearing the sleeve to improve performance — his doctor recommended the sleeve as an aid for his swollen, bursitis-stricken elbow.

And that is where the proven benefits of compression clothing are found: in treating medical conditions that involve swelling or poor circulation.

Clinically, compression garments are designed to deliver specific levels of pressure to the limb on which the garment is worn. The added pressure is designed to enhance the rate of blood flow back to the heart and reduce edema (swelling caused by excess trapped fluid) in people with vein disorders. Compression clothing may even be as beneficial as blood-thinning drugs for people with blood clotting and venous circulatory issues.

Wearing compression clothing may also help reduce muscle cramps and restless leg syndrome, though there’s more research to be done in that area.

In short, compression clothing can be beneficial for managing some medical conditions, and when worn for at least a full day following exercise, it may help with muscle recovery. But the jury is still out on whether or not wearing compression clothing can improve athletic performance. For athletes, compression clothing stands alongside other recovery strategies such as ice baths, massage and nutritional supplements.

About Vivek Kushwaha

Vivek P. Kushwaha attended the University of Texas at Austin where he earned his B.A. from the College of Natural Sciences. He then earned his medical degree from the University of Texas Medical School at San Antonio, Texas.

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