I clearly remember the first time I showed up at that little place in one of the Copenhagen suburbs where they do measurements for and order compression stockings.
A middle aged woman welcomed me and my mother and showed us into a fitting room with a chair looking like something you’d lie in at the dentist’s. I got up in the chair and the woman found a stocking in one of the boxes standing on the table to show me how my stockings would look. She pulled up a several millimetre thick, leather pencil case stiff and ugly piece of fabric and let me feel it. To be honest, I got really sad. My first impression was that this kind of thing could not be defined as a stocking as it was more a pair of pants in itself. And how would I ever be able to walk around in that, trying to combine “those things” with my everyday classic business outfits that I absolutely loved. But fortunately the fabric she pulled up did not in any way look or feel like the stockings I picked up a few weeks later and I was very grateful when I got my new stockings that they were actually not that bad.
It can be a bit of a turn around at first getting used to the stockings, but as with everything else they just become part of everyday life and at some point you just stop thinking about them. They become part of the outfit.
You can read more about compression stockings – and my experiences with them – below.
- Why wear compression stockings or shorts?
- Generally about compression stockings and shorts
- Overall guidelines in relation to compression clothing
- Getting used to the idea of wearing stockings
Why wear compression stockings?
The concept of compression clothings is pretty simple: You have to wear them to prevent the lymphedema from getting worse.
The stockings or shorts will help your lymph fluid from not just ending up in the tissue resulting in hard tissue.
With that being said, one cannot expect the compression stockings or shorts to be able to prevent all swelling during the day. Sometimes when I get stressed, my legs will swell up (a lot!) and the stockings cannot hold it all down. But they still have an enormous effect and as long as I combine the stockings with for example exercise, it is possible to keep my lymphedema in check most of the time.
Generally about compression stockings and shorts
Compression stockings and shorts are – most often – custom made for a specific person. That means you will have to get your limb with lymphedema measured and then the stockings will be made based on your specific measurements.
Compression stockings and shorts can be grouped based of how well they compress, how long they are, the way they are knitted and the quality of the material they are made of (source: sundhed.dk).
The stockings are divided into 4 groups in relation to degree of compressing (source: sundhed.dk):
- Class 1: Can be used when having superficial varicose veins and if there is a minor reduction arterial circulation.
- Class 2 and 3: Is used on patients with a reduced blood reflux from the feet to reduce wounds and edema.
- Class 4: Is only used with lymphedema.
Even though my lymphedema is bad, I am actually “only” using a pair of class 3-stockings. I have been told that the doctors rarely order patients a class 4-stocking. But a the same time my stockings are knitted in a very thick way, so they give a high degree of pressure on my legs. Besides this I wear a class 1 pair of compression shorts.
The stockings can be made in a bunch of colours, many of them very flashy. I myself prefer the skin coloured stockings, as you can read more about below, but it is a matter of personal taste and preferences.
The effect of compression stockings and shorts usually lasts around a year. Then you will have to go get your legs, arms etc. measured again to see if the measurements have changed. If for example your leg has gotten either thinner or thicker, the stockings will need to be amended in size so they’ll fit you perfectly again.
I would always advise to go and have your legs, arms etc. measured, if you feel like your lymphedema has gotten worse or better during the period where you have a specific pair of stockings. If for example your lymphedema has worsened and your measurements gone several centimeters up, it is important to have new stockings made because otherwise you risk the stockings have the wrong effect. If the measurements are suddenly to small on your thighs, you risk the stockings making the lymph fluid go downwards into you lower legs instead of upwards towards your upper body – and that will worsen the lymphedema.
Overall guidelines in relation to compression clothing
There is a few practical things that is good to have in mind in relation to both compression stockings and shorts. I have listed what I think is the most essential ones below.
- Most compression stockings should be used for a maximum of two days in a row and then washed.
They need to be washed to “regain their strength”, so they can put the right pressure on your legs, arms etc.
- Wash them at low temperature.
I always wash mine at 30 degrees Celsius. Look at the washing instructions in your own stockings.
- Try to avoid putting your compression clothing in the dryer.
Putting them in the dryer can in some cases ruin the fibres in the compression fabric or make them more stiff and unflexible faster. It is no problem to wear the stockings even though they are not completely dry. They will finish drying up while you wear them.
- VERY IMPORTANT: Remember to give the stockings and shorts a good stretch when you take them out of the washing machine.
If you do not stretch them, they will shrink in, get shorter and eventually not fit you the way they should.
- The stockings and shorts should not be hanging down drying. Lay them flat on for example a drying rack.
- Never put on the stockings if you have lotion on your legs. The lotion must be fully dried into the skin cause otherwise you risk ruining the stockings with the lotion.
Getting used to the idea of wearing stockings
In the beginning, when I had to choose the design of my new stockings, I was sure about what I wanted. I was not ashamed of the stockings, but I did not want anyone to notice them. I did not want people – especially strangers – noticing me because I was wearing this strange kind of clothing and I did not want anyone to know anything about me having been sick earlier and now having these challenges because of having had cancer. I wanted to be “normal”. As you can imagine I was an insecure 22 year-old woman who just wanted to blend in with everybody else. I especially did not wanted to be treated differently in my professional life and miss out on professional opportunities because I had had cancer and now side effects of the cancer treatment. My worst fear in relation to my professional life was that people would see me as weak and constantly show me consideration. I was afraid of not being offered the professional opportunities I knew I was smart enough to handle because of my “disability”. I wanted to be seen as a lawyer. Not a person who had been sick, not a person who had side effects of cancer treatment and especially not a person who was not able to do the same things as every other lawyer.
I therefore chose that my first two pairs of compression stockings should be black and skin coloured. Black because it might as well just look like a regular pair of leggings and skin coloured because that would look like my own legs through a pair of black nylons.
I also had to choose whether there would have to be an open or closed toe in the stockings. My toes do no swell very much and I am therefore allowed to wear stockings that do not have a closed toe. If your swelling is really bad in the toes as well, your stockings will probably have to be closed.
I chose to order the skin coloured stockings with an open toe, cause I if wore open shoes or stilletoes and then had nylons on, it would look completely normal because you would be able to see my toes in the open toe-shoes.
Today, 5 years later, I always order my 2-3 pair of compression stockings in skin color because I find that most practically. In the summer a black pair of stockings can get really warm and I at the same time like that it looks natural when I wear my stockings to a short dress or skirt. Even though I still want my stockings to be skin colored, I do not in any way feel the same way about my stockings as I did in the beginning. Now it is more a matter of them being part of my outfits and it just fits well with skin colored, because that color is neutral and in that way I can wear colorful clothes and still everything matches.
I admire those people who can get the news that they have to wear stockings for the rest of their life and just wear them without thinking further about it. I was not able to do that. I think it had much to do with me being pretty young when I got the news and I have also always liked blending in, not getting attention in public. And I was also scared about the consequences for all my work-related dreams; I did not want to be considered unable to do the jobs I really wanted to do, either if I was working in a law firm or a high-pressure ministry.
The first 3 years I had my stockings I wore clothes that would hide the fact that I wore them. Especially my mom had a hard time understanding why I could not just “embrace the new me” and proudly show my stockings. But I could not do that. I had to get used the stockings in my own pace and my own way.
After those first years I started doing small things to make myself more confident wearing the stockings. I literally took baby steps. So I would go for a very short walk in the middle of the day where I knew I would not meet any other people. I would go down to the grossery store next to my apartment and do grosseries with my stockings showing. And I gradually got more and more used to walking around showing my stockings. It might sound crazy to some, but for me it felt like a huge victory every time I had challenged myself and gotten a little bit further.
I still clearly remember visiting one of my girlfriends in the suburbs. We had plans to go down to the mall on a busy shopping day and I had – very bravely – worn a dress. We walked around the mall, shopping and having fun. Me still trying to be a bit discrete, though. At some point we had an ice cream on a bench in the middle of the mall and I noticed that some people were staring in our direction. In the direction of my stockings. I am pretty sure they were looking at them. But I just manned up and acted like I did not even notice them. When I came back to my own apartment that day and went in to the bedroom where my boyfriend was chilling in bed, I laid down next to him and cried. I cried so hard and it felt like I was exploding of emotion. I was so extremely proud of myself. I had done it. I had gone to a mall with my stockings showing. Up until this date that exact day still feels like a ground-breaking victory to me.
From that day on I have taken it much further of course. Very shortly after the mall-episode I took it really far (mentally for me); I walked through one of Copenhagen’s most busy parks in the summer, with people lying all around on the grass, in a short dress – and my stockings. I have no doubt that some of them wondered why I was wearing crazy warm stockings when it was 30 degrees outside that day. But that’s okay. And the thing is, if you yourself do not radiate that you are very uncomfortable and insecure, people actually do not notice that there might be something strange about you.
Credit to those who do not struggle with these concerns at all. I truly admire you. And to those people who does struggle with the same insecurities I can only tell you to work through it in your own pace. Don’t let anybody else pressure you into feeling that you should handle it any other way than the way you do. At some point you will probably feel the same way I did; that you have to challenge yourself on the matter. And from that first baby step challenge, it will take no time feeling a whole lot different about yourself in those stockings. I promise!