How to Choose a Compression Garment

July 28, 2021

How to Choose a Compression Garment

Your doctor told you that you must wear a compression garment to manage your lymphedema, but you’re unsure how to decide which garment is the right one for you. You’re not alone. A few essential factors about compression garments will gratefully affect their efficacy and your outlook on wearing them. Our philosophy is that the only way a compression garment can improve lymphedema is if it precisely matches your needs, including size, length, compression, and most importantly, comfort & appearance. In addition, we believe that a compression garment does not work if it is sitting in the back of your drawer, so while choosing a therapeutic garment that works is critical, it is also necessary to choose a garment that you will wear.

Measure Twice

If your shirt size is medium and you’re tall, you need a medium, long garment, right? Wrong! Be sure to measure your affected limb (including length) to the specifications of the garment manufacturer to determine your size. Like clothing sizes vary from brand to brand, compression sizing is entirely different between brands. There is no shortcut to finding your correct size in all the various brands without using your measurements. In addition, suppose your limb volume is changing due to swelling or therapist intervention. In that case, it is also vital to remeasure when you purchase new garments, usually every four to six months, to make sure you’re getting the compression you need!

Get the Compression You Need

One of our most frequently asked questions is, “How much compression do I need?” And, unfortunately, it is a question we are unable to answer. As a guide, Class 1 (20-30mmHg) compression is less compression (not as tight) and is used to manage light lymphedema and preventatively for those at risk for lymphedema. Class 2 (30-40mmHg) compression is more compression (tighter) and is used to manage existing lymphedema swelling. But figuring out how much compression you need and when to wear your garment isn’t as simple as following the guidelines. Your doctor, physical therapist, or lymphedema therapist should recommend a compression class to you based on your swelling, treatment, and self-care routine.

Lymphedema is an individual disease, and that’s why we can’t stress enough that you should not choose a compression class arbitrarily. Discuss how much compression you need with your doctor or therapist to ensure you’re getting the right amount of pressure to meet your lymphedema management needs.

Choose a Garment You Will Actually Wear

Once you determine your size and compression class, you can finally start looking at other factors that may be important to you in a compression garment. There are lots of different characteristics out there. If you need to keep your limb cool because it is warm where you live, you may want to look for a breathable and moisture-wicking garment. If you’re worried about constrictions and want a garment that can move with you when you’re active, you want a seamless garment with a 4-way stretch. You may be worried about how people will react when they see you wearing your garment, then be sure to choose a garment that fits your personality, choose a color or pattern and imagine the kind of reactions you will get. One of our lovely customers once shared a story of the responses she got at her church when she wore a loud, tattoo-style compression sleeve that was out of character for her. She loved that people were approaching her with awe and surprise instead of pity for her having lymphedema; she said it helped her outlook on living with this disease.

Even though these garments are medical devices, think about this purchase just like you would think about any other garment you’d wear regularly. You wouldn’t continue to wear a hot, itchy, ugly shirt, then why purchase a compression garment with these properties? The shirt and the compression garment would meet the same fate, stuffed in the back of a drawer to never see the light of day. In the compression industry, it isn’t the bitter pill that works. You can have an attractive and comfortable garment that is effective. Whether you choose bright pink, a floral pattern, or simply beige or mocha, it is your compression garment. Get a garment that matches your style and personality. Yes, wearing a compression garment can be a chore, but getting a garment that you love can make it less of a daunting task. Remember, a compression garment will only work for you if you wear it, so make sure to get one you love!

Recognize Discomfort

It will take a little bit of time to get used to wearing a compression garment. However, even though a compression garment delivers graduated pressure and containment to your limb, it should not cause discomfort.

There are a few common causes for compression discomfort:

  • Too tight
    • Garment constrictions (sometimes caused by sewed-in elastic bands) result in a fluid build-up at the tourniquet point.
    • Overall tightness causing your limb to go numb, tingle, or change colors.
    • Binding (a roll or fold) in the compression fabric that restricts flow.
  • Too loose
    • Tangible looseness can disrupt graduated compression by moving fluid away from the lymph nodes and causing additional swelling.
    • Constantly pulling up and straightening the garment can be annoying, which reduces the desire to wear the garment when recommended.
  • Too long
    • Garment folds over and rolls, causing a tourniquet.
  • Too short
    • Garments that are too short can cause an abrupt end to pressure causing a ‘bubble’ of swelling at the top of the garment.
    • Having to pull up and adjust the garment for proper fit can be an annoyance.

Replace Your Worn Out Garments

So, you have found a garment that you love; it is the right size, the proper compression, it’s not too tight or too loose, it looks great, and it is so comfortable. But one day, you take it out of the drawer, and it feels different, it is looser, and when you take it off, the elastic doesn’t snap back to its shape. That can only mean one thing. Your beloved garment needs replacing. The typical lifespan of a ready-made medical graduated compression garment that is being worn and laundered regularly is 4 to 6 months. After that time, the elastic fibers (name brand; Spandex, LYCRAⓇ) in the garment are exhausted and no longer retract to provide adequate compression. Purchasing a few garments and rotating them is a great way to extend their lifespan.

Paying for Compression Garments

We always get asked about insurance coverage for garments, and unfortunately, in the USA, all insurance companies and the plans within those companies vary greatly. Therefore, it is crucial to call your insurance company to find out if they cover compression garments, how many, and their requirements for coverage. For example, some insurance plans require a diagnosis code and prescription from a doctor to get covered. However, we do not need those items for you to purchase the garments. The most important thing to know is that as long as the medical device (compression garment) serves the same therapeutic purpose to the patient, the insurance codes for coverage are the same regardless if the garment is more comfortable or more attractive. Which means you may have more options than you know.

We have some trusted allies in the industry that can check patient benefits and acquire garments for patients based on the criteria above. Visit our insurance page for more details.

Photography credit goes to Paris Lopez on Unsplash.