There are a wide variety of compression-type garments that claim to have many different benefits. Used by everyone from athletes to the elderly, compression wear can provide some good benefits, but there is also some BAD news, as well as a few UGLY truths. Let’s take a look, shall we?

Compression Wear – What is it?

Compression wear is something that can almost be worn from head to toe – or at least from the shoulders down. These garments are often made from nylon or spandex, sometimes have an adjustable Velcro strap, and are designed to constrict against the skin.

Basically, there are elbow and knee sleeves, socks, t-shirts, shorts, gloves, and lower back devices sometimes called “waist trainers”; most of these can be bought online or over-the-counter at your favorite sports store or pharmacy (but compression stockings of certain strengths have to be prescribed by a doctor). 

Many of these garments are touted as providing pain relief, as well as reducing swelling, and helping speed recovery. But some make other more grandiose claims, like promoting weight loss or improving athletic performance. A popular trend is to include copper threads or rivets, which manufacturers often tout as giving the product further benefits.

Compression Wear – The Good News

There are a lot of proven benefits from certain types of compression wear, particularly, an elbow, knee, wrist sleeve, or sock. For example, if you twist your ankle or sprain your knee, doctors advise RICE – not the food, but the acronym that stands for Rest, Ice, Compression, and Elevation. Calf and foot compression garments can increase blood flow, which can be beneficial for elderly people of those that work on their feet all day. 

Compression garments have also been shown to improve movement and speed up recovery time from injury. They may also help reduce pain and/or swelling, but there is still some debate as to whether this is true or not.  

Compression Wear – The Bad News

The bad news about compression wear is that most of the other claims have minimal evidence of effectiveness, and some devices may actually be bad for you. Specifically, we’re talking about the enhanced athletic performance promised or implied by many types of compression garments, and a possible danger when it comes to wearing a back support device/waist trainer.

You’ve probably seen many of your favorite basketball players, runners, or even cyclists that wear some kind of compression sleeve or garment. They do not wear these because they are hurt; rather they believe that the increased circulation, pressure, and recovery time will give them a competitive edge. This has yet to be proven by clinical studies. 

A study conducted by researchers in France, for example, found increased oxygen saturation in the calf tissue of runners wearing a calf compression sleeve, but no difference in their overall performance. 

Furthermore, an overview of 37 different studies testing the effectiveness of a variety of compression garments found no indication that any of them provided an added benefit. Many researchers feel that any perceived enhancement from wearing them is likely psychological. (See our article on the Placebo Effect for more info.)

And now a warning about compression belts for the back. While these devices may help with stiffness and mobility, there is worry that they will give you a false sense of strength, causing you to lift more than you should. 

Compression Wear – The UGLY Truth

Now it’s time to face some truths about these products, ESPECIALLY ones that have the word “copper” in their name. These include, but are not limited to: Copper Wear, Copper Fit, Copper Back, Copper Hands, and perhaps the most famous… Tommie Copper

Ugly Truth #1 – there is NO added benefit from the copper!

Many of these types of products try and promote the fact that copper is an essential element and that in some instances it may be an antimicrobial agent, especially if it’s a copper surface. However, the amount of copper included is so tiny, this antibacterial effect is negligible at best.

And some of them  – we’re looking at YOU Copper Hands – claim that the copper has “magical powers” to relieve symptoms like pain or arthritis. However, a recent study has completely debunked this notion. (And BrightReviewers agree, as Copper Hands averages just 2.5 stars.)

Ugly Truth #2 – a compression t-shirt will NOT make you look slimmer.

Tone Tee is an example of such a product that claims to compress “target areas” like love handles to make you look like you’ve been to the gym. In reality, this “special effect” is minimal and you can likely get similar results by wearing a size smaller t-shirt. (You’d have better results, as one of our BrightReviewers noted, if you go to the gym “and eat less rubbish.”)

Ugly Truth #3 – any compression garment that makes you sweat more won’t really help you lose weight in the long run.

While you may lose some water weight temporarily, you will quickly gain it back as soon as you re-hydrate. In addition, Consumer Reports did a test on a product called the Belly Burner and found the excess sweating did not increase users’ metabolic rate. (You may want to also read our companion article about Waist Trainers.)

And finally Ugly Truth #4 – be wary of any compression product that claims to help with sciatica nerve pain.

BeActive Brace is a pressure pad worn below the knee that promises such relief. Not only does it get lousy reviews, but Courtney C. who claims to be a Doctor of Physical Therapy warns our readers that a device like this could possibly cause a blood clot and adds: “There is no, I repeat no, physiological reason pressure in this area will cure sciatica.”

In Conclusion: Compression Wear is great for sprains or mobility, but not much else

We tried to cover a lot of info here because, as you can see, there are so many different ways compression garments are worn.

Generally speaking, if you have a bum knee or tennis elbow, you may likely benefit from a compression sleeve. 

If you wear a compression belt around your waist, don’t think you’re Superman (or Supergirl).

Don’t expect to suddenly look fit if you wear a compression t-shirt.

A pair of compression running shorts or socks won’t really help you win the marathon (unless you believe they will).

DO NOT pay any extra for a compression sleeve that claims to have benefits derived from copper.

DO NOT use compression for sciatica pain and if you are thinking about buying any compression socks, talk to your doctor first.

Understood? Good! Let us know your questions or comments below!