If you’re a woman, your grandmother probably told you more than a few times that ladies should always cross their legs when they sit down. But then, your grandmother also told you that if you cross your legs too much, you’ll get varicose veins. Grandmothers can be really confusing.
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, about 50 to 55 percent of women and 40 to 45 percent of men in the United States suffer from a venous abnormality, like varicose veins or spider veins. It’s probably safe to say that 100 percent of people would much rather prevent those varicose veins from happening in the first place. It’s a common admonition that leg crossing leads to vein bulging, but is that really true? Did Grandma lie?
The Straight Talk
I hate to call your grandmother a liar, but it’s not true. There are many factors—both genetic and lifestyle-related—that contribute to the development of varicose and spider veins, but a leg-crossing habit isn’t high on the list.
The notion makes sense, at least in theory. Varicose veins are caused by weak or damaged vein walls. As the heart pumps blood throughout the body, these damaged veins (usually occurring in the lower body) have trouble fighting gravity to pump the blood back up. The result is that blood pools in the veins and eventually bulges out, causing pain, itching, blood clots, ulcers, and fear of shorts. It sounds plausible that the compression resulting from spending significant amounts of time with one’s legs crossed could add to the blood’s pooling in the legs and impede its flow back to the heart. But although it sounds plausible, that’s just not how the vast majority of varicose veins are formed.
According to reputable medical sources, such as the Mayo Clinic (and unless your grandmother is a doctor at the Mayo Clinic, she doesn’t count as a reputable medical source), the most significant risk factors for varicose veins are age, heredity, and pregnancy. Leg crossing doesn’t even make the list.
The older a person gets, the more likely she is to eventually develop varicose veins. It’s the natural result of a lifetime of wear and tear on the body, and there’s not much even the most devotedly fitness-minded person can change. Heredity is also a huge factor: if your father and grandfather both developed varicose veins, there’s at least a 50 percent chance that you will, too.
Pregnant women are another big group of varicose vein sufferers, because of the increased amount of blood that their veins have to carry through their bodies, as well as hormonal changes that can affect the integrity of vein walls. It’s very common for pregnant women to develop varicose veins; luckily, however, they often go away within a few months following delivery.
Other factors that can lead to varicose and spider veins include having a sedentary lifestyle, having a job that requires you to stand for much of the day, being overweight, having a heart condition, or suffering from diabetes. According to The Vein Book, by John J. Bergan, leg crossing as a contributing factor is considered strictly conjectural—it sounds good in theory, but there’s simply no hard evidence to show that it exists. Countless studies have shown no connection between leg crossing and vein problems, and many doctors have noted that the supposed “compression” caused by crossing one’s legs isn’t nearly strong enough to truly impede blood flow.
An ordinary active person without any additional risk factors for venous malformations doesn’t need to worry. However, pregnant women, elderly people, people with a family history of varicose veins, or anybody with any reason at all to err on the side of caution may want to uncross, just to be on the safe side. In fact, everyone—regardless of vein risk—should take care of her veins by exercising regularly, maintaining a healthy weight, and never sitting or standing in the same position for too long. That’s advice Grandma would approve of.
Say What? is a series created to support or debunk common health myths. If you have a question, please send it to the editor at firstname.lastname@example.org.