Intermittent Pneumatic Compression

Intermittent pneumatic compression devices can protect you from harmful blood clots after surgery. People who can’t walk around can use these devices to keep their blood moving in their legs. This is where blood clots can start. These devices are an alternative to blood thinners, which some people can’t take.


What are intermittent pneumatic compression devices?

Intermittent pneumatic compression (IPC) devices are inflatable sleeves that prevent blood clots. You wear them on your calves (lower legs) to help your blood circulate. A plastic sleeve slides over and past each foot. Then, it goes around each calf and plugs into a small machine that makes it inflate.

Another name for an intermittent pneumatic compression device is a sequential compression device (SCD) or an SCD boot.

When do you use intermittent pneumatic compression?

You use the intermittent pneumatic compression device as part of your recovery in the hospital or sometimes at home. Until you’re moving around more, you wear the device when you’re resting in bed or sitting in a chair.

Hospitals most often use intermittent pneumatic compression devices for people who are less active while recovering from:

Inactivity could lead to deep vein thrombosis (DVT) — a blood clot that forms most often in your thigh or lower leg.

DVT is common, and the risk is higher if you’re in the hospital for an extended time while recovering from surgery or a stroke. Some people may need intermittent pneumatic compression before, during and after their operation.

DVT can be dangerous, especially if the clot breaks off and travels through your bloodstream. If it gets stuck in a blood vessel in your lung, it can cause a blockage or pulmonary embolism (PE). This can cause severe shortness of breath and even sudden death.

Intermittent pneumatic compression devices help prevent DVT and other blood clots.

Pregnant people sometimes need an intermittent pneumatic compression sleeve to prevent blood clots. They may need these on their legs if they aren’t moving around much while in the hospital before or after delivery.

Intermittent pneumatic compression devices can also treat lymphedema.

How common is intermittent pneumatic compression?

The use of intermittent pneumatic compression devices is very common because anyone who has surgery could be at risk of a blood clot. Anyone spending the night in the hospital after surgery could be wearing these devices.


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Procedure Details

What happens during intermittent pneumatic compression?

The intermittent pneumatic compression sleeves (cuffs) attach to a compression machine. The sleeves inflate around your legs every 20 to 60 seconds, then deflate. The sensation feels like a leg massage.

The inflating and deflating movement of the intermittent pneumatic compression device supports your circulation. Healthy movement of blood in your body prevents blood clots from forming.

When the sleeves compress, they help the blood move through your body to your heart. When they relax, oxygen-rich blood flows to your leg arteries. The sleeves also help your body release substances that can prevent clots.

How long will I need to use intermittent pneumatic compression?

Ask your healthcare provider how long you should use the leg compression machine. Typically, once you get up and move regularly, the risk of DVT decreases. Then, you can stop wearing the device.

Risks / Benefits

What are the potential benefits of intermittent pneumatic compression?

The leg compression machine helps your blood circulate and lowers your risk of blood clots. It offers the benefits of movement without medication when you can’t be active.

A blood clot in a vein (venous thromboembolism) is the leading preventable cause of death in hospitals. This makes intermittent pneumatic compression a valuable tool to prevent blood clots and save lives.

Intermittent pneumatic compression may be the only blood clot prevention some people can have. This drug-free device is a good option for people who are relatively immobile or take blood thinners.

Do intermittent pneumatic compression devices work?

Yes. Using intermittent pneumatic compression devices decreased the risk of a DVT by 4%, according to a large trial.


What are the risks or complications of intermittent pneumatic compression?

Complications of intermittent pneumatic compression devices include:

  • Warmth in your legs that may make them sweat.
  • Limited leg movement.
  • Time-consuming removal if you need to get out of bed.
  • Discomfort, skin irritation or skin breakdown.
  • Rarely, nerve damage or a pressure injury.

Intermittent pneumatic compression devices may feel a little strange, but they shouldn’t hurt. Let your healthcare provider know if your leg compression machine is causing you pain.

Recovery and Outlook

Is there anything I can do to make intermittent pneumatic compression easier on me?

Do some simple foot exercises during the day. Point and flex your feet a few times an hour while you’re awake. Point your toes toward the floor, then toward your face.

If your care team says it’s safe to get out of bed, take short walks several times a day to get your blood flowing.


When To Call the Doctor

When should I call my healthcare provider?

Tell your healthcare provider if you have:

  • Swelling or warmth in your leg.
  • Pain in your leg or skin.
  • Skin sores under the compression sleeves.
  • Shortness of breath.

Additional Common Questions

When do I take off the intermittent pneumatic compression device?

You can remove the intermittent pneumatic compression devices before you bathe or shower. You should also remove your devices before getting up to walk. Wearing them while you move around may make you more likely to trip and fall. Ask a provider for help.

What happens if the device isn’t inflating?

If the intermittent pneumatic compression sleeves aren’t inflating, tell your healthcare provider.

Will I need other treatments to prevent blood clots?

Your healthcare provider may prescribe a blood-thinning medication (anticoagulant). These medications may be more effective than a compression device. However, they come with higher risks, such as excessive bleeding. Your provider may recommend both the compression device and a blood thinner. Once you’re able to do so, walking in the hospital halls four to five times a day is also an easy way to help prevent blood clots.

A note from Cleveland Clinic

A provider may prescribe an intermittent pneumatic compression device to lower your risk of blood clots after surgery. Because you’re less active as you recover, you’re at higher risk of developing potentially dangerous blood clots. You can protect yourself by wearing the device for the full amount of time your provider recommends. If the leg compression machine is causing you issues, ask a provider for help.

Medically Reviewed

Last reviewed on 04/18/2023.

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