February 24, 2006

Mizzou Team Researches Best Socks

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"Sock it to me," a team of biological engineering students at the University of Missouri-Columbia decided, as they put ten popular brands of athletic socks to the test.

However, finding out how to best help athletes avoid painful blisters from sweaty socks was not the only reason for the research, according to the University. The results also provide meaningful information for persons with diabetes, who often have serious circulation problems and loss of sensation in their feet, due to peripheral neuropathy, leaving them at risk for diabetic ulcers and possible future amputations.

"This is about helping diabetics who have circulation problems and figuring out where they need specific materials in their socks," said Lisa Huhman, biological engineering student at Mizzou. "We find out where diabetics have skin trauma and target those areas. This isn't just about helping athletes prevent blisters."

Prosthesis users are another group that can benefit from the research, which was sponsored by Tamarack Habilitation Technologies Inc., Blaine, Minnesota.

So what did the research team learn, according to study results released February 21? "We found that 100-percent cotton socks were usually the worst, especially when a person started to sweat," said biological engineering student Robert Mooney. The best socks proved to be all nylon, with cotton-synthetic blend socks scoring between the other two materials. The team also found that money doesn't matter; the higher-priced socks did not test any better than inexpensive brands. The key is the material used, not the price, according to the study.

"If I were a jogger or a runner looking for a pair of socks, I would look for a pair that had different compositions of materials in different parts of the sock," Huhman said. "I would not want a sock that was overall cotton. I might look for a sock that had some of those synthetic materials that were proven to be better."

The team started by developing a testing device which uses a stepper motor to tilt a Plexiglas® form that holds the sock material against a platform at a set pressure. The device calculates the point at which the material slips against the platform, which reveals its coefficient of friction (COF). Blisters are more likely to develop the higher the COF where the sock and shoe meet. Moisture makes the problem worse; that's why tests were conducted in a humidity chamber.

The team is hopeful their device could help develop standards for use in sock manufacturing, the university noted.

Adam Erickson of Tamarack, quoted by Jeff Douglas of the Associated Press (AP), said the company is most interested in friction management and that the students' findings were consistent with Tamarack's expectations.

According to a survey by the American Podiatric Medical Association (www.apma.org), 29 percent of consumers buy socks for specific sports and recreation activities. The APMA website gives tips on selecting the right socks for various needs. However, cotton socks are fine for people who are not on their feet all day, said APMA spokesman James Christina, DPM, as quoted by the AP. He added, "But it's those special instances that you want to pay more attention to what you wear."

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