How to Use a Compression Bandage

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A compression bandage is a type of stretchy bandage that is wrapped around a body part to place pressure on it. It is commonly used in first aid as part of a therapy known as RICE (rest, ice, compression, and elevation).

Compression helps reduce swelling by restricting blood flow and can also help reduce pain. It is important to know how to use compression bandages correctly so that they are not too tight and end up cutting off circulation.

Compression bandages are typically used to treat sprains and strains. But, they can also help keep a body part stabilized, such as when there has been a rib fracture. The bandages may also be used to prevent or treat the build-up of fluid in the lower legs, known as edema.

This article will discuss how to use compression bandages correctly, mistakes to avoid, and other treatment alternatives.

How to use a compression bandage

Verywell / Cindy Chung

Choosing the Right Size

Compression bandages can be anywhere from 2 inches to 6 inches in width. As a general rule, the wider the bandage is, the less likely it will be to cut off circulation. It is important, therefore, to select the right size for the body part.

By way of example:

  • A 6-inch compression bandage can be used around the chest, torso, or thigh.
  • A 3-inch to 4-inch bandage may be suitable for an adult arm or leg.
  • A 2-inch bandage may be appropriate for children's arms or legs, or adult fingers.

Always choose the right-sized bandage for the body part. A bandage that is too narrow can cut off circulation. A bandage that is too wide may not provide ample compression.

How to Use

When using a compression bandage, you need to apply the right amount of pressure to prevent swelling and help stabilize the injury. This can be tricky since body parts and the blood vessels that supply them differ in size and shape. Wrapping a thigh is one thing; wrapping a complex joint like an ankle or wrist is another.

To use a compression bandage on a leg or arm:

  1. Roll up the bandage if it isn't already rolled up.
  2. Hold the bandage so that the start of the roll is facing up.
  3. Keep the limb in a neutral position.
  4. Start wrapping at the furthest end of a limb.
  5. Continue wrapping, overlapping the edges by an inch or so each time you go around.
  6. When finished, secure the end with clip fasteners or tape.

To use a compression bandage on an ankle:

  1. Roll up the bandage if it isn't already rolled up.
  2. Hold the bandage so that the start of the roll is facing up.
  3. Keep the ankle at a roughly 90-degree angle.
  4. Starting near the ball of the foot, wrap the bandage several times and continue wrapping until you reach the heel.
  5. Leaving the heel exposed, circle the bandage around the ankle.
  6. Next, circle the bandage in a figure-8 pattern around the arch of the foot.
  7. Continue wrapping in a figure-8 pattern, moving down toward the heel on the bottom and up toward the calf at the top.
  8. The wrap should cover the entire foot from the base of the toes to about 5 or 6 inches above the ankle. 
  9. Secure the end with clip fasteners or tape.

To use a compression bandage on a wrist:

  1. Roll up the bandage if it isn't already rolled up.
  2. Hold the bandage so that the start of the roll is facing up.
  3. Start at the base of the fingers and wrap the bandage around the hand between the thumb and index finger.
  4. Continue wrapping around the hand and toward the wrist, overlapping the bandage.
  5. Circle the wrist several times, ending about 5 to 6 inches above the wrist.
  6. Secure the end with clip fasteners or tape.

The bandage should be tight enough to feel snug but not so tight as to cause pain, discomfort, numbness, tingling, or cold or blue fingers or toes. These are signs that the bandage is too tight and needs loosening.

Don't be afraid to ask for help if you don't know how to use a compression bandage. If in doubt, call your doctor or ask your pharmacist to show you how to use one.

Do's and Don'ts

Compression bandages do a good job of keeping the swelling down. However, there's a limit to how long you should compress an injury. At some point, blood flow needs to increase to encourage healing.

To improve healing and prevent injury, there are some do's and don'ts you should follow:

Do's
  • Use a compression bandage for only the first 24 to 48 hours after an injury.

  • Combine rest and elevation with compression whenever possible.

  • Remove the bandage at least twice daily for a few minutes before placing it back again.

  • Ask your doctor if you need to wear the bandage at night. If so, loosen it slightly before bedtime.

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

  • Don't wrap elastic bandages too tightly. This can cut off circulation.

  • Don't use a compression bandage to prevent reinjury. The bandages can help stabilize joints, but they neither support nor protect them.


    Never use limp bandages. Washing the bandage can help restore some of the elasticity. Buy new ones if needed.

Alternatives

Compression bandages are extremely useful but not appropriate for all situations. There are several alternatives that may be better suited for certain injuries or medical conditions.

For longer-term use, compression wraps may be recommended instead of compression bandages. These are wider pieces of elastic material usually secured with velcro. They are designed for larger body parts, such as the chest or thigh, and provide stable, even compression.

There are also tube-like elastic sleeves and compression socks, also designed for longer use.

Self-adherent compression bandages, such as Coban or Dynarex, are bandages that behave like tape but do not stick to the skin. They can be torn to specific lengths and come in widths ranging from a half-inch to 4 inches.

Self-adherent compression wraps are regularly used in athletics or following a blood draw to provide compression. They can even be used as a tourniquet.

Gauze wraps are not as springy as an elastic bandage. They aren't used as much for compression these days because they tend to slip and lose their shape quickly. These are better suited to control bleeding or dress open wounds.

Recap

Compression bandages are most often used to treat acute injuries, such as sprains or strains. Other compression devices may be appropriate for longer-term use or emergency situations such as bleeding.

Summary

A compression bandage is a long strip of stretchable cloth that you wrap around a sprain or strain to apply gentle pressure. By restricting blood flow, swelling and inflammation can be reduced. This not only promotes healing but helps make the injury feel better.

It is important to use a compression bandage correctly. This includes choosing the right size and wrapping the body part snugly to apply pressure without cutting off circulation. A compression bandage generally should be used for only 24 to 48 hours after an injury.

A Word From Verywell

A sprained wrist or ankle is a common injury, so having a compression bandage in your first aid kit is important. It is equally important to remember that compression bandages are not intended as a substitute for medical care if you sustain a more serious injury, such as a fracture or muscle tear.

If an injury causes extreme pain, a visible deformity, joint locking, severe bruising or swelling, or the inability to stand or walk, see a doctor and have it checked out.

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3 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Urbanek T, Jusko M, Kuczmik WB. Compression therapy for leg oedema in patients with heart failure. ESC Heart Fail. 2020 Oct;7(5):2012–20. doi:10.1002/ehf2.12848

  2. American Red Cross. American Red Cross first aid/CPR/AED participant's manual. Updated 2021.

  3. American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. Ankle sprains: what's normal and what's not. Updated March 2019.

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