Can Spanx be hazardous to your health?

Golden Globes! SAG Awards! Grammys! Oscars! It’s Red Carpet Season!

And what makes the celebrities in their designer gowns look their best? SHAPEWEAR! (Please don’t call them girdles!!!)

Everyone wears them: Gwyneth Paltrow, Jennifer Garner, J-Lo, Beyonce, Kim Kardashian, Emma Watson to name a few.

As model Tyra Banks puts it:

“Every celebrity walking down the red carpet. You think she’s all just naturally like ‘shooop.’ A lot of them have Spanx on. They’re these tight little tights. You put ‘em on, it sucks you up, baby. No matter what red carpet, I got ‘em on. I look like a granny before I put the dress on, but I put on the dress, and it’s like, ‘palow!’”

And shapewear is no longer just the domain of the rich and glamorous. Sales of shapewear have taken off with the introduction of Spanx.  According to, shapewear companies such as Yummie Tummie, Ruby Ribbon Inc., Lysse, Jockey and industry leader Spanx have “seen drastic growth, surpassing apparel and other forms of accessories.” Annual sales have now increased to over $812.5 billion.

But is there a price to pay for smooth garment lines? A recent article by Rebecca Adams in the Huffington Post  interviewed  gastroenterologist Dr. John Kuemmerle, dermatologist Dr. Maryann Mikhail and chiropractor Dr. Karen Erickson about potential health hazards of wearing shapewear. They discussed the following problems:

1. Organ Compression

Wearing tight garments around the abdomen squeezes the stomach and intestines and can increase acid reflux and heartburn. Long periods of compression can slow digestion and cause bloating, gas and abdominal discomfort.

Dr. Kuemmerle explains that this can be especially problematic in those with intestinal disorders like irritable bowel syndrome: “In someone who has weakness down below and a tendency towards incontinence [bowel leakage] increasing intra-abdominal pressure can certainly provoke episodes of incontinence.”

2. Numbness and pain in your legs

Meralgia-Paresthetica-Lateral-Femoral-Cutaneous-NerveTight fitting garments, such as shapewear can cause a condition called Meralgia paresthetica. Meralgia paresthetica is a disorder characterized by tingling, numbness, and burning pain in the outer side of the thigh. The disorder is caused by pressure on the lateral femoral cutaneous nerve (LFCN), a nerve that brings sensation to the skin of the thigh.  The nerve is compressed as it exits the pelvis on the outer front side of the thigh.

Note: Adding high heeled shoes makes things worse by tilting the pelvis forward and increasing the pressure on the nerve.

3. Blood clots and varicose veins in the legs.

Overly tight garments can block blood flow from the veins in the legs back to the heart. This sluggish blood flow can cause blood clots in the legs caused deep vein thromboses (DVTs). Occasionally, one of these blood clots can break off and lodge itself in the blood vessels in the lungs. This is called a pulmonary embolism and can cause shortness of breath, chest pain, and even death.

varicose_veinsVaricose veins are are swollen, twisted veins that you can see just under the surface of the skin. These veins usually occur in the legs, but they also can form in other parts of the body.

Veins have one-way valves that help keep blood flowing toward your heart. If the valves are weak or damaged, blood can back up and pool in your veins. This causes the veins to swell, which can lead to varicose veins.

Tight clothing does not cause varicose veins. Family history and obesity play a larger role in their formation. However tight clothing, especially those that are tight around your waist, groin (upper thighs), and legs can make varicose veins worse.

4. Increase risk of infection

Tight shapewear can create a moist, warm environment can lead to yeast and bacterial infections. Wearing shapewear can increase the risk of vaginal yeast infections and bladder infections.

Skin bacteria can get into hair follicles causing an infection called folliculitis.  This is seen as red pimples and pustules on the skin. More common in individuals who are overweight, have diabetes, or those who are prone to excessive sweating.

5. Restricted breathing

When you take a deep breath, your diaphragm lowers into your abdomen to draw air into your lungs. This causes your abdomen to “pooch out”. With shapewear, expansion of the abdomen is restricted, so breathing is likewise restricted and tends to be shallow.

6. Urinary incontinence

As it can take some effort to get in and out of them, there is a tendency for those wearing shapewear to avoid going to the bathroom to urinate . Dr. Erickson points out that:

“You’ve got all of this pressure on your bladder from the shapewear pressing down. If you postpone urinating, it can cause stress incontinence, where you leak, or it can exaggerate stress incontinence with people who already have it.”

In stress incontinence, the sphincter muscle and the pelvic muscles, which support the bladder and urethra, are weakened. The sphincter is not able to prevent urine flow when there is increased pressure from the abdomen (such as when you cough, laugh, or lift something heavy).

7.  Poor posture

Some people use shapewear as a “crutch” to improve the appearance of their posture.   “Shapewear is not a substitute for having strong muscles,” Dr. Erickson says. It’s important to develop muscle tone, because it’s those muscles that hold your posture in perfect alignment.”

The Bottom Line

Shapewear may make you feel better about how you feel in your clothes, but there are some risks involved. To minimize these:

  1. Don’t wear shapewear all the time! Save it for special occasions.
  2. Don’t overeat when wearing shapewear. If possible don’t put them on for at least a half hour after eating.
  3. Make sure they are properly sized. Err on the side of being a little looser, rather than tighter.
  4. Make sure they are washed frequently.
Michele R. Berman, M.D. was Clinical Director of The Pediatric Center, a private practice on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. from 1988-2000, and was named Outstanding Washington Physician by Washingtonian Magazine in 1999. She was a medical internet pioneer having established one of the first medical practice websites in 1997. Dr. Berman also authored a monthly column for Washington Parent Magazine.

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