Varicose Veins

Varicose Veins

What are varicose veins?

Varicose veins are enlarged veins that are visible through the skin and may appear as blue or purple twisted, knot-like cords. Varicose veins can occur anywhere in the body, but are more commonly found on the legs. Hemorrhoids, a type of varicose vein, can appear during pregnancy around the anus or in the vagina.

What are spider veins?

Spider veins, a milder type of varicose veins, are smaller than varicose veins and often look like a sunburst or "spider web." They are red or blue in color and are commonly found on the face and legs, just under the surface of the skin.

What causes varicose veins?

Illustration of the anatomy of a vein, showing valves
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Varicose veins are caused by increased blood pressure inside the superficial leg veins. Two main types of veins are present in the legs. Superficial veins are near the surface of the skin, whereas deep veins are located in the muscle tissue. Varicose veins occur in the superficial veins in the legs. In contrast, deep veins lead to the vena cava, a large vein that transports blood to the heart.

The blood in the veins of the legs works against gravity in order to return upwards to the heart. The blood is moved up towards the heart by one-way valves in the veins. When the leg muscles contract and squeeze the deep veins, the valves inside the veins open. When the leg muscles relax, the valves close, preventing blood from flowing backward.

When the one-way valves become weakened or damaged, blood can collect in the veins, causing the veins to become enlarged. Sitting or standing for long periods can cause blood to pool in the leg veins, increasing the pressure within the veins. In persons who are prone to varicose veins, the veins can stretch as a result of increased pressure. This stretching of the veins may weaken the walls of the veins and damage the valves. Thick varicose veins or spider veins may result.

Other factors that may lead to weakened vein valves and the development of varicose veins include obesity, aging, leg injury, pregnancy, smoking, hormones, and heredity (being born with weak vein valves). While varicose veins are not considered a severe medical condition, they can be uncomfortable and can lead to more serious problems such as phlebitis (inflammation in the leg) or blood clot. Varicose veins can also be a cosmetic concern to some people.

Illustration of the circulation system of the legs
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Varicose veins are not generally linked to a serious condition called deep vein thrombosis (DVT) because they occur in superficial veins. However, with severe varicose veins, there is a small increased chance of developing DVT. DVT requires immediate medical attention. Symptoms of DVT include sudden, severe leg swelling and can result in blood clots that travel to the brain or the heart. The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute suggests that people seek immediate medical care if they have:

Again, the chance of developing a DVT from varicose veins is very small, but--just in case--it is good to know its symptoms. 

What are the symptoms of varicose veins?

The following are the most common symptoms of varicose veins. However, each individual may experience symptoms differently. Symptoms may include:

Severe varicose veins may eventually produce long-term mild swelling that can result in more serious skin and tissue problems, such as ulcers and nonhealing sores.

The symptoms of varicose veins may resemble other medical conditions or problems. Always consult your doctor for a diagnosis.

What are the risk factors for varicose veins?

The risk of varicose veins is strongly related to age and gender. The following are suggested risk factors for varicose veins:

A risk factor is anything that may increase a person's chance of developing a disease. It may be an activity, such as smoking, diet, family history, or many other things. Different diseases have different risk factors.

Although these risk factors increase a person's risk, they do not necessarily cause the disease. Some people with one or more risk factors never develop the disease, while others develop disease and have no known risk factors. But, knowing your risk factors to any disease can help to guide you into the appropriate actions, including changing behaviors and being clinically monitored for the disease.

How are varicose veins diagnosed?

In addition to a complete medical history and physical examination, diagnostic procedures for varicose veins may include any, or a combination, of the following:

What is the treatment for varicose veins?

Specific treatment for varicose veins will be determined by your doctor based on:

Medical treatment may not be necessary if there are no symptoms. However, varicose veins may sometimes worsen without treatment. Treatment for varicose veins involves both surgical and nonsurgical approaches.

Nonsurgical methods for treating varicose veins include:

Surgical approaches to the treatment of varicose veins include:

Can varicose veins be prevented?

Steps to prevent varicose veins include maintaining a healthy weight, exercising regularly, and elevating the feet while sitting. Avoid clothing that constricts your waist, groin, or legs, shoes with high heels, and crossing the legs while sitting.  While these measures may help prevent varicose veins in some people, they may only slow the onset of the condition in individuals who are susceptible.

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