You may have seen some of the world’s most elite athletes hanging out between competitions and practices in a pair of space age-looking boots. They’re not the latest in athleisure but rather a recovery method. The thigh-high sleeves provide intermittent pneumatic compression — a therapeutic, controlled pressure cycle to the limbs — for the purpose of reviving the legs for their next performance.
What is Compression Therapy?
Compression as recovery is nothing new. Many athletes already rely on compression socks and shorts after a workout, and research identifies a link between compression garments and reduced muscle soreness after sprinting and plyometrics. Pneumatic compression therapy is a little more intense. The sleeves, which look like a larger version of a blood pressure cuff, have multiple chambers attached to a pump and control unit, and they are programmed to provide sequential, pulsating compression to a specific area.
“The main function of the compression sleeves are to engage a lymphatic flush,” says Chris Contini, a recovery specialist at Denver Sports Recovery in Colorado. “[It helps] facilitate the removal of waste product, inflammation, swelling and promotes a healthy blood flow back into the environment.”
Does Compression Therapy Work?
Unlike many trendy recovery techniques, this treatment has a solid history rooted in medical science. Devices like NormaTec Recovery, Sports Pump and Recovery Pump have been around for some time. They were originally intended for medical treatment of lymphedema (swelling often triggered by lymph node damage or removal), management of circulatory disorders and prevention of deep vein thrombosis. When the technique is applied to athletes, studies have shown a significant improvement in accelerating recovery after training as well as enhanced flexibility and range of motion. This therapy can be used with massage and ice for treating injury.
Massachusetts-based NormaTec holds the biggest market share in the sports world. Top NCAA programs; a majority of NFL, NBA and NHL teams; the US Navy SEALs; and the US Olympic Committee are all regular users, according to their website. The Boston Celtics and the Kansas City Chiefs have even dedicated entire rooms equipped with these compression units in addition to cold and warm whirlpools, designed to be used together.
In a video interview, Celtics Head Athletic Trainer Ed Lacerte attested to the ease of use of compression therapy, especially on the road. Citing the compact size of the compression units, he said the team can take the recovery room with them while traveling. Players can use rechargeable battery-powered units to let their limbs recover while in their hotel rooms or on a bus or plane.
The testimonials of top athletes provide an outpouring of support for compression therapy, but it isn’t just advertising hype. Numerous physical therapists, trainers and other health-care professionals have regularly prescribed this treatment for years. Chiropractor Brian Hart, of Thompson Healthcare & Sports Medicine, says he and his team prescribe it at least 40 times a day at their six clinic locations, primarily for exercise recovery and the treatment and reduction of edema. He also notes that no patient has ever had any sort of adverse reaction to the therapy. He says that their athlete patients have had only positive things to say about the treatment.
From the professional athlete to the weekend warrior, more people are stopping into sports recovery centers for a compression session. Contini’s facility offers a monthly membership starting at $85 or drop-in visits at $25 a day. The refreshing effects of compression therapy can be felt in just one session, but Contini suggests continued use for maximum results. “Typically we will see clients utilizing the compressions two to three times a week but also as frequently as five to six times a week,” he says. “Generally, the more often they are being utilized, the more beneficial it can be.”
For those who prefer to have unlimited access, buying a unit is also an option (units range in price from $1,200 to $3,000 each). San Francisco’s Golden Gate Triathlon Club athlete Chipper Nicodemus trains up to six days a week when preparing for full and half Ironman races, enduring roughly 15 hours of swim, run, bike and strength training per week. He decided to purchase a set of NormaTec boots and relies on them a few times a week, for up to an hour per session. “The chance to sit down and literally have your feet up for 20–60 minutes after a tough ride or run is amazing,” says Nicodemus. “It helps relax and flush out the legs after a really tough session. My legs feel fresher and less tired when walking around for the rest of the day.”