How Pneumatic Compression Is Used in Physical Therapy

Intermittent pneumatic compression (IPC) is a therapy that involves inflatable sleeves, which are fitted around the legs or arms. This sleeve is attached to a machine that intermittently fills the sleeves with air to create pressure around the affected limbs and then deflates them.

This device is most commonly utilized in the hospital to stimulate blood flow and reduce the risk of blood clots when a person is less active while recovering from injury or surgery. It is also used in physical therapy (PT) to help support certain treatment protocols.

While the modality is not right for everyone, IPC can be beneficial when treating certain types of conditions. Learn how IPC works and its potential applications in PT.

Doctor checking on pneumatic pressure therapy

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What Is Intermittent Pneumatic Compression (IPC)?

Intermittent pneumatic compression (IPC) is a device that consists of a centralized air-pumping machine that is connected to a sleeve with multiple air chambers. When fitted over a limb or body region, the sleeve is inflated, causing it to squeeze or compress the areas of the body contained within.

Depending on the unit, many IPC devices can be programmed to apply different amounts of pressure to each of the compartments in order to help drain fluid or improve circulation in a region. Most machines also have preset compression cycles to maximize their effect on the targeted area.

Because of these features, IPC devices are often preferred over compressive wraps or manual therapy techniques when treating certain conditions. In addition, the devices have become much cheaper and more easily obtained, making them popular with therapists and patients alike.

Why Pneumatic Compression Is Used

IPC is not right for every patient. That said, many different diagnoses may benefit from this physical therapy modality.

Conditions that are commonly treated with this device include:

  • Lymphedema: This is a buildup of lymph (a kind of fluid) in soft tissue that causes swelling, which often occurs after cancer treatment. Compression sleeves and IPC are used to help control symtoms.
  • Post-surgical swelling: IPC may be used in the hospital to help encourage fluid drainage.
  • Venous ulcers or impaired venous function: A condition where weakened veins, often in the leg, fail to return blood to the heart normally. IPC helps to stimulate blood flow.
  • Pregnancy or obesity-related circulation issues: IPC is used to counteract the circulation impairments.
  • Blood clot (deep vein thrombosis) prevention: Extended periods of inactivity (such as after surgery or during injury recovery) can slow blood flow, increasing the likelihood of red blood cells clumping together and forming a clot. IPC is used to prevent this from happening.

In many cases, your PT will instruct you in using your IPC machine in the therapy clinic and then issue it for long-term use at home. Some pneumatic compression units also contain a cryotherapy or icing function, which allows them to address swelling, inflammation, and pain at the same time.

What to Expect During Pneumatic Compression Therapy

IPC devices are typically utilized while you are in a seated or lying down position. Your therapist may also have you elevate the affected area to assist with fluid reduction.

After the compression sleeve has been applied to the affected limb(s), your PT will help you connect it to the air compressor and select the appropriate parameters for your diagnosis.

When the treatment begins, you will feel the compression sleeve become snug as it squeezes the targeted area. While this pressure may feel strange or even a bit uncomfortable, it should not be painful. Be sure to notify your PT if you are experiencing discomfort so they can modify the intensity accordingly.

As the treatment continues, the amount and location of the compression typically fluctuate. You may also feel changes in the intensity of the compression depending on how the fluid in the region changes.

Once the program is complete, the sleeve will fully deflate and can be removed from your body.

Limitations

While IPC can provide meaningful benefits for the conditions discussed above, it is frequently not the only treatment that is utilized.

In the case of lymphedema, this modality is commonly used in physical therapy alongside manual drainage techniques, compressive wraps, and instruction on maintaining proper skin hygiene.

Similarly, physical therapists frequently employ bandages or stockings in addition to IPC when treating venous ulcers.

Finally, this treatment may be utilized in tandem with more active therapy techniques, like strengthening or stretching exercises, when treating post-surgical swelling.

Related: Recovering from Surgery

Risks

IPC is a widespread and relatively safe treatment option. That said, there are several potential side effects. These include:

  • Pain, warmth, or sweating in the area covered by the compressive sleeve
  • Redness or skin breakdown in the treatment area
  • Nerve damage (temporary or permanent)
  • Compartment syndrome or pressure injury

Some of the more significant health risks associated with this treatment are rare and tend to be associated with improper use of the device.

If you are receiving IPC, be sure to work with your physical therapist to ensure you have a proper understanding of the device prior to using it on your own.

Contraindications

As with any medical intervention, there are several groups of individuals who should not receive IPC. Be sure to speak to your healthcare provider or PT prior to beginning this treatment if you have any of the following conditions:

  • Burns or wounds over the area being treated
  • Poor sensation or neuropathy
  • Thinning or fragile skin quality in the treatment area
  • Known deep vein thrombosis or blood clot
  • Swelling related to congestive heart failure
  • Active infection

Alternatives to Pneumatic Compression

If you are uneasy about using IPC or if it is contraindicated in your specific situation, there are several feasible alternatives that may be utilized.

For instance, hands-on drainage techniques can be performed by your PT to help improve swelling or lymphedema in an area. Unfortunately, the benefits of this treatment are commonly only temporary.

In addition, compressive stockings and bandages are frequently worn over the targeted region in an effort to manage symptoms. These interventions are typically utilized on a daily basis and may need to be continued for life depending on your particular diagnosis. Your PT can provide you with specific guidance on managing your unique symptoms.

Summary

An intermittent compression therapy (IPC) device is an air-pumping machine that is attached to an inflatable sleeve. When the sleeve is fitted around a leg or arm, it can be alternatively inflated to create pressure around the extremities. It is used to stimulate blood flow and encourage fluid drainage during periods of immobility, such as during recovery from injury or surgery, and to treat certain conditions such as lymphedema and venous ulcers.

A Word From Verywell

Whether you’re dealing with swelling after surgery, lymphedema, or long-term venous insufficiency, pneumatic compression may be able to improve your condition. This easy-to-use and widely available device can help reduce the symptoms you are experiencing and improve your daily
function. Be sure to speak to your physician or physical therapist about whether this treatment is appropriate for you.

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8 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.
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