medical compression wear

The Difference Between Medical Compression Wear and Shapewear

Medical compression wear and body shapewear can be similar. But there are key differences between these body-hugging garments. While they both squeeze a particular area of the body (usually the midriff, in the case of shapewear), medical-grade compression wear does not function in the same way as shapewear. Nor is its purpose solely cosmetic.

For starters, medical-grade compression garments are designed to address the symptoms of a serious medical condition; lymphedema. In some instances, these items are prescribed to help patients recover after surgical procedures. They do so by promoting healthy drainage while wounds heal. 

Shapewear is popular, but it serves no health-related purpose. Rather, body shapewear redistributes flesh in an attempt to improve the user’s physique appearance and help tight-fitting clothing look and feel more tailored.

The Growing Shapewear Trend

When the popular National Public Radio podcast How I Built This premiered in 2016, it focused on the successful entrepreneur, Sara Blakely. Ms. Blakely is the founder of an enormously successful body shapewear company called Spanx.

She wanted a slimming undergarment that would improve on the restrictive old-school girdles favored by her grandmother’s generation. The straps, the hooks and buttons, the matronly silhouette. These were all associated with the kind of older women prone to wearing a girdle. Blakely wanted something more modern, less matronly. She wanted something new, preferably better.

Dismissing old-school options, Blakely set out to design a body-contouring undergarment that would enhance the figure while a woman wore body-hugging outfits, such as dresses. Despite having little to no knowledge or experience with fashion, design, or even fabrics, Blakely took that idea and built a company that eventually made her a billionaire. 

Medical-Grade Compression Wear

While similar in some ways, medical compression wear is actually more modern than “shapewear,” and its design and construction are more sophisticated. Medical grade compression wear is created using modern manufacturing techniques and materials, with a specific, medically beneficial purpose in mind: to improve the redistribution of lymph fluid from areas of the body affected by lymphedema.

Shapewear is entirely about one’s looks. Compression wear can be stylish, but its primary function is to help control the symptoms of lymphedema. Medical grade compression garments tend to be far better constructed, of more durable fabrics and materials, too.

While shapewear is a specialty item, probably worn only occasionally, medical compression items must typically be worn constantly, and indefinitely. They have to stand up to rigorous use, washing, drying, and reuse. 

How Do I Tell the Difference Between Medical Grade Compression Wear and Shapewear?

Only true medical-grade compression wear comes with a stated compression range. The pressures these items exert on the body are expressed in millimeters of mercury (mm/Hg). These ranges are grouped from mild (Grade 1: 8 mm/Hg to 30 mm/Hg) to extra-firm (Grade 3: 40-50 mm/Hg). The first category is further divided into ranges described as mild, moderate, and firm. The highest compression ratings are available only with a doctor’s prescription.

Another difference involves the concept of graduation. Medical compression wear — especially items intended for the legs or arms — features tighter compression at points farther from the heart, and somewhat less compression closer to the heart. This has the effect of gently coaxing lymph out of the tissues, back into the lymph vessels, and then back towards the heart for recirculation, often working against the pull of gravity.

Essentially, excess fluids in the affected tissues are encouraged to drain away from these tissues and return to the circulation due to the effects of graduated compression. This, in turn, reduces swelling and minimizes potential health complications in affected tissues. In contrast, shapewear may help you feel shapelier in your physique, but it won’t affect your health. Although it might curtail your ability to breathe deeply.

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  1. What is the typical price range for a medical-grade compression garment?

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