Understanding Varicose Veins: Basics, Symptoms, Treatment, & Prevention

What Are Varicose Veins?

Understanding Varicose Veins: Basics, Symptoms, Treatment, & Prevention

Varicose veins usually announce themselves as bulging, bluish cords running just beneath the surface of your skin. They can appear anywhere in the body but most often affect legs and feet. Visible swollen and twisted veins — sometimes surrounded by patches of flooded capillaries known as spider-burst veins – are considered superficial varicose veins. Although they can be painful and disfiguring, they are usually harmless. When inflamed, they become tender to the touch and can hinder circulation to the point of causing swollen ankles, itchy skin and aching in the affected limb.

Besides a surface network of veins, your legs have an interior, or deep, venous network. On rare occasions, an interior leg vein becomes varicose. Such deep varicose veins are usually not visible, but they can cause swelling or aching throughout the leg and may be sites where blood clots can form.

Varicose veins are a relatively common condition, and for many people they are a family trait. Women are at least twice as likely as men to develop them. In the United States alone, they affect up to 60% of all Americans.

What Causes Varicose Veins?

To help circulate oxygen-rich blood from the lungs to all parts of the body, your arteries have thick layers of muscle or elastic tissue. To push blood back to your heart, your veins rely mainly on surrounding muscles and a network of one-way valves. As blood flows through a vein, the cup-like valves alternately open to allow blood through, then close to prevent backflow.

In varicose veins, the valves do not work properly — allowing blood to pool in the vein and making it difficult for the muscles to push the blood “uphill.” Instead of flowing from one valve to the next, the blood continues to pool in the vein, increasing venous pressure and the likelihood of congestion while causing the vein to bulge and twist. Because superficial veins have less muscle support than deep veins, they are more likely to become varicose.

Any condition that puts excessive pressure on the legs or abdomen can lead to varicosity. The most common pressure inducers are pregnancy, obesity and standing for long periods. Chronic constipation and – – in rare cases — tumors also can cause varicose veins. Being sedentary likewise may contribute to varicosity, because muscles that are out of condition offer poor blood-pumping action.

The likelihood of varicosity also increases as veins weaken with age. A previous leg injury may damage the valves in a vein which can result in a varicosity. Genetics also plays a role and if other family members have varicose veins there is a greater chance you will too. Contrary to popular belief, sitting with crossed legs will not cause varicose veins, although it can aggravate an existing condition.

What Are the Symptoms?

Symptoms of varicose veins include:

#Prominent dark blue blood vessels, especially in the legs and feet.

#Aching, tender, heavy, or sore legs; often accompanied by swelling in the ankles or feet after standing for any length of time.

Call Your Doctor If:

Swelling becomes incapacitating, or if the skin over your varicose veins becomes flaky, ulcerated, discolored, or prone to bleeding — you could be developing stasis dermatitis. You may want to have the veins removed to avoid further discomfort and prevent potentially more serious circulatory problems.

You have red, warm and tender varicose veins. This may be a sign of phlebitis.

You cut a varicose vein. Control the resulting burst of blood and have the vein treated to prevent complications.

What Are the Treatments?

A mild case of varicose veins does not usually require a doctor’s care. You can find relief from the discomfort of varicose veins with basic at-home treatment and various alternative remedies.

Superficial varicose veins normally do not require medical attention, but they should not be ignored. To relieve the discomfort, your doctor may recommend elastic support stockings, which you can buy in most pharmacies and medical supply stores. Support stockings help your leg muscles push blood upward by concentrating pressure near the ankles. Put them on before you get out of bed in the morning. Raise your legs in the air and pull the stockings on evenly; they should not feel tight in the calf or groin. You should wear them all day and also elevate your legs for 10-15 minutes several times throughout the day.

To alleviate occasional swelling and pain, your doctor will probably suggest an over-the-counter anti-inflammatory drug such as aspirin or ibuprofen. If you notice skin around a varicose vein becoming ulcerous or discolored, or if you have continuing pain with no obvious outward signs, contact a doctor at once about the possibility of deep vein involvement.

Most varicose veins do not need to be removed. If particularly bothersome, varicose veins can be eliminated by one of several methods. Spider veins can be removed quite simply through laser treatment. A mild case of superficial varicose veins can be treated by sclerotherapy: A chemical known as a sclerosing agent is injected into the vein to collapse its walls so it can no longer transport blood. There are other catheter assisted methods that use heat or radiofrequency waves to destroy and ultimately close the vein. More severe cases may merit surgical removal, or stripping.

Unfortunately, no treatment can prevent new veins from becoming varicose. Before pursuing a particular treatment, discuss all options with a dermatologist or vascular surgeon.

How Can I Prevent Varicose Veins?

Exercise regularly! Staying fit is the best way to keep your leg muscles toned, your blood flowing and your weight under control. Avoid wearing tight clothing.

Eat foods low in fat, sugar and salt. Drink plenty of water.

If your daily routine requires you to be on your feet constantly, stretch and exercise your legs as often as possible to increase circulation and reduce pressure buildup.

If you smoke, quit. Studies show that smoking may contribute to elevated blood pressure, which in turn can aggravate varicosity.

If you’re pregnant, be sure to sleep on your left side rather than on your back to minimize pressure from the uterus on the veins in your pelvic area. This position will also improve blood flow to the fetus.

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