How Do Anti-Embolism Stockings Work?

Anti-embolism stockings are a specific subset of compression hosiery, generally used for patients confined to bed for recovery. But what exactly makes them different from other products, and who should wear them? Below, we explain what an embolism is, why anti-embolism stockings are different and how anti-embolism stockings work.

legs of a woman wearing compression socks 

What is an embolism?

According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, venous thromboembolism (VTE) is a disorder that includes deep vein thrombosis and pulmonary embolism. Deep vein thrombosis (DVT) occurs when a blood clot forms in a deep vein—usually in the lower leg, thigh or pelvis—while pulmonary embolism (PE) occurs when a clot breaks loose and travels through the bloodstream to the lungs.

A pulmonary embolism prevents oxygen from reaching the lungs, so it can be life-threatening. Preventing DVT so there are no blood clots to break free is an important step to heading off a pulmonary embolism before it can even start. The risk of either condition is greatest after a major event such as surgery or injury, which is why anti-embolism stockings are often recommended for patients recovering after an operation.

Close Up Shot Of Deep Vein Thrombosis Stockings 

What are anti-embolism stockings?

Both anti-embolism stockings and compression gear use the same mechanism, with tight sleeves of fabric that encourage the blood to flow, thus discouraging the formation of a clot. However, compression socks come in a very wide range of levels—from 5 mmHg to 60 mmHg—while anti-embolism stockings top out at about 18 mmHg. This is because anti-embolism stockings are meant to maintain proper venous response in patients, rather than address venous issues that are already present.

While some people may use the terms “anti-embolism stockings” and “graduated compression hosiery” interchangeably, anti-embolism stockings have a very specific and limited purpose. They are only meant to be used by bedridden patients with proper venous action, and are not cleared for ambulatory patients (i.e., those who will be walking around a lot). Your doctor will be able to advise you if anti-embolism stockings will be necessary after a surgery—and if you’re not a patient but still want the benefits of compression therapy, you should opt for regular compression socks.

bandages legs and manual lymphatic drainage

How do anti-embolism stockings work?

To understand how anti-embolism stockings work, we have to take a look at the whole cardiovascular system. Your heart pumps the blood and keeps it moving through two blood circulatory systems in your body that are connected together. First, the blood moves all throughout your body via the systemic circulatory system, bringing oxygen and nutrients to your organs, tissues and cells. Then blood enters your lungs via the pulmonary system, and carbon dioxide is filtered out and fresh oxygen is added. Once the blood has been re-oxygenated, it starts the cycle all over again.

Your heart is very strong, but there’s another force that also acts on your blood: gravity. If you don’t move around enough, gravity can cause blood to pool in your extremities, especially in your legs, causing swelling, aches, pains and even blood clots and other serious health hazards. You’re at greater risk for poor circulation if you stand or sit all day or otherwise don’t move a lot—which absolutely applies to bedridden patients post-surgery.

Graduated compression products such as anti-embolism stockings apply graduated pressure on your extremities, starting with the greater pressure towards your feet and ankles and lessening as it moves up your leg. This pressure gradient gently compresses the veins in your legs, keeping them from expanding and the blood from pooling. Instead, it encourages the blood to keep flowing, reducing swelling, inflammation and the risk of venous thromboembolism in the process.

Anti-embolism stockings come in two main lengths: knee-high and thigh-high. Knee-high stockings are less constricting, whereas thigh-high anti-embolism stockings provide compression benefits along the entire length of your leg. Some also feature inspection toe pockets so your caregivers can check on the state of your legs without having to remove the stockings.

If you know you’ll be recovering from surgery or will otherwise be bedridden, anti-embolism stockings are a great way to passively maintain your circulation without any extra effort on your part. These lightweight stockings are comfortable to wear during your recovery and will help reduce the risk of venous thromboembolism.

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