What is the difference between medical and commercial compression garments?

August 11, 2021

What is the difference between medical and commercial compression garments?

If you’ve spent some time on the internet looking up compression garments, you probably have noticed that there are a lot of different options. Yet, it isn’t entirely clear which garments are suitable for therapeutic use as an aid in managing medical conditions such as lymphedema. And which garments are more suited for use for underdiagnosed conditions such as achy feet or enhanced recovery or performance by athletes. Between the two compression garment types, there is also a significant price difference. This article will explain the difference between the two different types of compression and demystify the difference in price point.

What is medical graduated compression?

Medical graduated compression works like a pump to move fluid from an area of high pressure to lower pressure. Each garment is manufactured so that the tension of the knit dictates the level of compression. The compression must start within the indicated compression range. For example, a 20-30mmHg compression garment will have between 20 and 30 mmHg (millimeters of Mercury) at the most distal point in the body; for a patient wearing an arm sleeve, this would be the wrist; for a patient wearing a knee-high sock, this would be the foot. Then the garment must be manufactured so that the pressure decreases by at least a few mmHg moving toward the core. For circulation-related issues, this helps the circulatory system pump the fluid toward the heart; in the case of lymphatic swelling, this helps move the stagnant fluid toward the lymph nodes located throughout the body but most commonly in the body groin and armpit area.

Therapeutically medical graduated compression helps with many different ailments such as:

  • Varicose veins
  • Spider veins
  • Varicose veins
  • Deep Vein Thrombosis (DVT)
  • Phlebitis
  • Lymphedema
  • Diabetes
  • Lipedema

Medical graduated compression garment regulation

Unlike commercially sold compression garments, government medical device authorities regulate medical compression devices. For example, in the United States, the FDA regulates these garments as Class I medical devices, meaning they are low to moderate risk to the user, are easily removed, and are not surgically implanted. In addition, the FDA regulations require that garments meet the standards of garment efficacy, which includes quality control, and rigorous garment testing.

Medical graduated compression garment cost

Typically medical graduated compression garments cost more than their commercially manufactured compression garments. This is because the specialized knit creates various levels of tension in the garment; this causes the medical graduated compression garments to take longer to knit. In addition, the knitting machine programming needs to meet a high level of engineering to ensure each garment has the accurate medically necessary level of pressure. The regulatory standards also add to the cost in the form of person-hours spent on quality control to ensure each garment that leaves the manufacturing facility is effective.

Medical graduated compression garments are considered durable medical devices that have specific HCPCS codes that allow insurance companies to identify the therapeutic purpose of these garments and provide coverage benefits to patients.

What is non-medical grade compression?

Commercial or steady-state compression delivers the same level of compression throughout the entire garment construction. The garment construction varies from a seamless tube to a stretchy fabric stitched together to form the desired shape. During physical therapy, these types of garments can apply pressure to a specific area such as elbows or knees. However, there is no particular rating for the amount of pressure these garments have to deliver, and they are not regulated to ensure they are providing any advertised compression.

Non-medical compression may help with the following conditions:

  • Pain relief for tired or achy muscles
  • Pain relief for tired or achy feet
  • Reduce soreness after playing sports or working out
  • Localized support when playing sports or working out

There aren’t any significant studies that show that these garments work in the way indicated above in the medical community. In 2015, scientists examined 24 different studies on the use of sports compression and the benefit to the athlete; the conclusion was “use of compression garments in sports practice remains empirical.” Thus, while there seems to be anecdotal evidence that points to the benefit of compression garments for recovery, there is no explanation for how they work or whether they work at all.

Non-medical compression garment regulation

Non-medical compression garments are not regulated and are sold commercially, just like any other article of clothing. Therefore, manufacturers of these products are not liable for any injury that results from the use of their garments.

Non-medical compression garment cost

Non-medical compression garments are manufactured just like any other article of clothing; therefore, the cost of the garment is dictated by the manufacturer based on their material, labor, and distribution costs. Due to the open market approach to manufacturing, these garments are lower in price than medical compression garments.

Non-medical compression garments are not considered durable medical equipment and are not covered by insurance.


Medical graduated compression garments are regulated medical devices ensured to benefit the patient if used correctly. Non-medical garments have anecdotal benefits in sports-related pain relief, but they are not systematically standardized and should not substitute medical graduated compression garments. If you consider purchasing a compression garment to help with a diagnosed condition, disease, or injury, be sure to seek guidance from your medical to determine which type of garment may be appropriate for you. Due to the price difference between the medical and non-medical garments, it may be tempting to choose the cheaper non-medical compression garments. Still, it is essential to note that these garments have no proven therapeutic benefits to treat any disease or condition and should be used cautiously. It is also important to note that the wrong type of compression in the wrong spot can exacerbate an existing injury.