Lupus flares can be unpredictable, triggered by both emotional and physical stressors. During a flare-up, you might notice new symptoms or the worsening of symptoms you’ve dealt with before — including edema, swelling that can affect your feet, legs, and ankles. Caused by fluid buildup, edema can be worrisome, especially if you’ve never experienced it before — and it can also be uncomfortable and interfere with your ability to walk.
“Does anyone have problems with their feet and ankles swelling, and with itchy and painful, red blotchy skin on their legs?” asked one MyLupusTeam member.
Some people turn to a special type of footwear called compression socks to manage edema. “I just recently had a bad flare involving my feet and legs, so I bought some compression socks,” a member shared.
What exactly are compression socks, how are they used, and how can they help with symptoms of lupus or related conditions? Read on to learn about how they might help you.
Compression socks are designed to promote better blood circulation by applying pressure to your skin. They come in various sizes and styles. Athletes sometimes use compression stockings to help with their recovery after physical exertion.
“I wear compression socks, but not all the time,” wrote one MyLupusTeam member. “They do seem to help with circulation.”
Lupus is an autoimmune disorder, the most common type being systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE). In autoimmune diseases like SLE, your body’s immune system is essentially attacking itself. One function of the lymphatic system — part of the immune system — is helping to maintain fluid levels in your body. By lightly squeezing the tissue right underneath your skin, compression socks increase the absorption of fluid into your bloodstream.
This happens because, when the stockings apply pressure to your tissues, they make it easier for fluids to be absorbed by nearby capillaries (small blood vessels) and lymphatic vessels, which are responsible for carrying this fluid from your legs and feet to different areas of your body. Eventually, that fluid will be returned to your bloodstream.
Compression socks also prevent the pooling of blood in your leg veins, which could cause inflammation and varicose veins (twisted, enlarged veins).
People living with lupus may experience a stronger-than-normal process of hemostasis, also called blood coagulation (when it turns from a liquid to a gel-like state) and clotting. When your blood pools together into a semisolid state, like a blood clot, it can pose a danger by blocking pathways in your veins and arteries. This is dangerous because it can prevent blood from effectively flowing through those pathways, potentially leading to serious complications.
Lupus nephritis, a complication of SLE that affects kidney function, is associated with an elevated risk of thrombosis — the formation of blood clots within your blood vessels.
Treatments that reduce inflammation around your joints and improve blood flow tend to also benefit people with inflammatory arthritis or related conditions.
People with lupus may experience a distinct type of joint pain called lupus arthritis, which, like rheumatoid arthritis (RA), usually starts with smaller joints like those in your hands and feet. However, unlike RA, lupus-related joint pain usually does not lead to permanent joint damage.
Around 95 percent of people with SLE develop joint symptoms at some point, either arthritis or arthralgia (joint pain without swelling).
A condition called Raynaud’s disease occurs in around 33 percent of people living with lupus. Also called Raynaud’s syndrome, it can develop on its own (primary Raynaud’s) or be caused by another condition (secondary Raynaud’s). In Raynaud’s, the blood vessels in the hands and feet tighten more than they should, thereby limiting blood flow. This can cause affected skin to feel numb or cold and to change color, sometimes appearing blue or white.
“My feet and hands change colors like red, purple, and white,” shared one MyLupusTeam member. “They stay cold and will go numb.”
“Yes I get it,” said another member. “Blue hands and toes.”
There has not been much research specifically on whether compression socks can help with Raynaud’s, but health experts recommend wearing warm socks (even two pairs of socks) to help stave off symptoms. Mayo Clinic recommends wearing heavy socks, but not specifically compression socks.
If you’re considering using compression socks to treat other lupus or arthritis symptoms and you also experience Raynaud’s, check with your doctor to make sure you are using them safely.
In general, it is best to consult a health care provider before using compression stockings for your lupus or other health conditions.
Your use of compression socks might vary depending on your specific needs and medical conditions. Ask your doctor if you have questions about how to use compression socks for your lupus symptoms.
The two main types of compression stockings are graduated and anti-embolism socks. Graduated compression socks are the most common. They are usually tighter around the ankle and looser the higher up they go. They come in two main lengths — knee-high and thigh-high.
Anti-embolism socks, on the other hand, are used to prevent blood clots in people with low mobility, such as those who cannot leave the bed after a surgery.
If you’re not sure what type of compression socks are best for you, consult with your health care provider.
According to Cleveland Clinic, there is usually little to no risk associated with wearing compression socks. However, there might be some risk for people who have severely reduced heart function or severe peripheral artery disease that disrupts blood flow between the legs and the heart.
Additionally, you should check with a medical care provider before using compression stockings if you have a history of:
Make sure to clarify with your doctor when you should wear them. Health experts generally recommend wearing them during activities or during the day and taking them off overnight — especially if they are too tight.
The main difficulty people have with using compression stockings is actually putting them on. You can buy a stocking aid from your local pharmacy or an online retailer to help. It also can be helpful to ensure your skin is completely dry when you are trying to put them on.
If you’re worried that compression socks might feel too tight, go for a light-to-medium compression. Socks with a lighter compression might be easier to put on; however, they might not be the optimal compression to help with your blood flow. Ask your doctor about being professionally fit for maximum compression.
MyLupusTeam members share their experiences using compression stockings for symptoms such as swelling and blood clots:
“I wear compression sports socks all the time. They are just above the ankle so they still cover the swollen areas, and they really help my feet!” shared one member.
“I had swollen ankles but the stockings have helped considerably,” a second member shared. “I wear knee-highs with compression of 15-20 mm Hg [millimeters of mercury]. I started wearing them because I had blood clots and my doctor recommended them.”
If you are considering using compression socks for your lupus-related symptoms, you are not alone. There is a network of supporters who can identify with your experience and are ready to discuss questions you may have about seeking medical treatment.
On MyLupusTeam — the social network for people with lupus and their loved ones — more than 223,000 members come together to ask questions, give advice, and share their stories with others who understand life with lupus.
Have you ever used compression stockings for lupus symptoms? What did you think about them? Share your experience in the comments below, or start a conversation by posting on your Activities page.