Are there any studies to show that wearing compression garments actually work?
Training and competition can easily lead to exercise induced muscle damage (EIMD). The exercise type, duration, intensity and how well adapted to the exercise you are can determine how likely this is to occur. We all know we are in for some sore first few steps in the morning when our training program starts dialling up! Additionally, eccentric exercises (where the muscle lengthens while the muscle is contracting) are more likely to lead to EIMD. Think of running downhill or lowering yourself down slowly from a pull up bar.
EIMD is then characterised by reductions in muscle strength, decreased rate of force development, reduced range of motion, possibly swelling and increased experience of delayed onsets of muscle soreness or DOMS. These symptoms can last 48-72hrs depending on the severity. This then alters our ability to train again or add further fitness development. We have to sit it out and wait for the body to recover. Or do we?
The use of compression garments (CG) have become the norm in many sports, but is there actually any science to prove that they work? The proposed mechanism behind CG working is by creating an external pressure gradient that reduces the space available for swelling, or to enhance the blood flow to aid the removal of waste products and metabolites.
Hill, J. et al in 2014, conducted a meta-analysis (the highest level of scientific evidence) of compression garments, where they pooled the results of 12 studies together to give a verdict on the use of CG and whether they actually improve the rate of recovery from EIMD.
Their pooled results indicated that CG had a positive effect on reducing the experience of DOMS on athletes. It is plausible that this could be explained by the external pressure reducing the available space for swelling to occur, thus attenuating the inflammatory response and experience of pain. Additionally, performance measures of strength (a variety of different ones were used in the 12 studies) and power (counter-movement jump and 5m sprint time) were returned to baseline faster using a compression garment. Lastly, the Creatine Kinase (CK) levels (a marker of muscle damage) was reduced overall in athletes wearing compression garments. This is plausible through CG enhancing the muscle pump function and helping to clear metabolites more effectively. Collectively an average of 66% of people wearing CG had a positive response in all these indicators compared to controls.
Overall the results from the meta-analysis show that the use of CG may reduce the recovery time for athletes. Now it must be noted that many of the studies in the meta-analysis had small sample sizes which reduces the power of the study, however pooling the results together enhances the relevance of the results found. Additionally, none of the studies blinded their patients to the treatment, hence the placebo effect cannot be eliminated. Discrepancies also existed in the duration and degree of pressure used. So further studies must aim to clarify these concerns.
Nonetheless, these findings suggest that wearing CG may improve recovery times following intense training and competition faster than no compression.
Reference: Hill, J. et al. Compression garments and recovery from exercise-induced muscle damage: a meta-analysis. Br J Sports Med, 48: 1340-1346. 2014