When to Use a Compression Bandage

Elastic bandages (also known as compression bandages) are often used for the compression part of RICE—rest, ice, compression and elevation—the gold standard of first aid treatment for bruises and sprains. Probably the most common brand name for an elastic bandage is an ACE.

How to use a compression bandage
Illustration by Cindy Chung, Verywell

Select the Width

Elastic bandages usually come in 2- to 6-inch widths. The wider the bandage, the more compression you get without blocking actual blood flow. Typically, for an adult arm or leg, you want to use a 3- or 4-inch bandage.

Adult fingers and kids' arms and legs can get away with the narrower 2-inch width bandage.

Correct Use

Elastic bandages do a good job of compressing a new injury or inflammation and help keep swelling down. However, there's a limit to how long you should compress an injury. At some point, blood flow to the injured area needs to increase to encourage healing.

  • Use elastic bandages only in the first 24 to 48 hours after an injury.

  • Combine rest and elevation with compression whenever possible.

  • Don't apply ice and compression at the same time. This can cause frostbite.

  • Don't wrap elastic bandages too tightly. The idea is to discourage swelling, not to block blood flow altogether.

  • Don't try to wrap an ankle or a knee with an elastic bandage to keep it from getting re-injured. Elastic bandages don't provide support; they're simply for compression.

Alternatives to Elastic Bandages

Self-adherent compression bandages (Coban or Dynarex) provide compression similar to an elastic bandage. They have the added benefit of behaving like tape without sticking to the skin. These wraps can be torn easily to the length the rescuer needs and they are capable of wrapping tight enough to be an adequate tourniquet.

Self-adherent compression wraps are common in sports settings and come in several different widths ranging from 1/2-inch to 4 inches. Since they act like tape, they're more versatile in a first aid kit than a typical elastic bandage.

Gauze wraps like Kerlix, Kling, or Conform are not as springy as an elastic bandage. They aren't used much for compression because they just don't get tight enough while still holding their wide shapes.

Gauze wraps are better for controlling bleeding or dressing open wounds.


With the exception of self-adherent compression wraps, none of these options would make a passable tourniquet. Tourniquets should completely staunch blood flow to distal parts of the extremity on which they are used.

A Word From Verywell

A sprained wrist or ankle is a common injury, so knowing how to choose the right compression bandage is a scenario you are likely to face. Use compression bandages with care and they'll help you heal minor injuries.

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  1. American Red Cross. American Red Cross First Aid/CPR/AED. Participant's manual.

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