I’ve been trying to stave off vein issues since I was 25. I first noticed little purple spidery patches creeping up my thighs, behind my knees, and then I realized that my grandmother (to whom I bear more than a passing resemblance) had a few varicose veins herself. That led me to want to find out everything I could about what causes varicose veins, and see what, if anything, I could do to stop them.
Veins pump deoxygenated blood back to the heart, and tiny valves in the veins push the blood along, preventing it from flowing backwards. When the vein walls become weak or the valves don’t function correctly, blood flows the wrong way and begins to pool in the veins, causing them to collapse and develop into twisty, distended blue protrusions. The backup and pooling of blood in the veins is called venous insufficiency and it’s caused by weakening of the vein walls and of the valves. Venous abnormalities usually occur in the legs and lower body because the veins there work against gravity. Although uncommon, some varicose veins develop on the ankles or even as high as the groin.
There are many similar vein conditions related to varicose veins. Spider veins, which are inflamed capillaries caused by the same venous insufficiency, are far less severe and they usually occur on the legs, closer to the surface of the skin. These red or blue veins can look like spider webs or tree branch patterns. Reticular veins, the flat, bluish veins that appear behind the knees, are another related condition. Occasionally, more serious reddish spider veins called telangiectasias can appear on the face. Hemorrhoids are another form of varicose veins that occur around the anus, and varicoceles, a type of varicose vein found in the scrotum, are often linked to male infertility.
Vein disorders are among the most common medical conditions in America and account for more missed work than heart disease, according the Vascular Disease Foundation (VDF). Varicose veins are more common in women than in men; the VDF notes that by age fifty, 40 percent of women will have a vein disorder, compared with about 20 percent of men. Most vein disorders, such as basic varicose veins or spider veins, can be managed at home, but a doctor should examine varicoceles and severe varicose veins.
A Confusing Protrusion
No one is exactly sure why some people get varicose veins and some don’t, but there are definite risk factors. Age is a big one, since our blood vessels lose elasticity as we get older. Those who are obese, immobile, or spend long periods sitting or standing are also at greater risk for varicose veins, because of the increased pressure on the legs.
Varicose veins commonly develop during pregnancy. Because of increased blood flow in the body and the added weight of the fetus, many women experience varicose veins on their legs, as well as hemorrhoids. The good news is that varicose veins that develop during pregnancy usually go away within a few months of the delivery. The bad news? They are likely to worsen with each subsequent pregnancy. Doctors theorize that the hormone surge during pregnancy is another reason that vein disorders occur so often in expectant women. Hormonal changes could also explain why women are generally more likely to develop varicose veins throughout their life.
Varicose veins aren’t usually painful, but they can be unsightly. The affected veins are close to the surface, so the pooling blood forces the vein to expand and the skin to protrude. They appear blue because the blood they carry does not contain oxygen, and it makes those veins more noticeable, especially in people with pale skin. Although most varicose veins are pain-free, physical symptoms can include a heavy feeling or throbbing in the legs, as well as itching, cramping, and swelling in the lower body. Occasionally, complications can develop, including ulcers or sores near the ankle, and potentially even blood clots.
Freeing the Flow
More bad news … once varicose veins develop, there’s not much a person can do to get rid of them. To try to prevent them from developing, it’s a good idea to exercise regularly for improved circulation and maintain a healthy weight, so there’s less pressure on the legs. Elevate your legs whenever possible and avoid crossing your legs when you sit. Wearing compression support hose, available at medical and surgical supply shops, can also help prevent blood from pooling in the lower legs. For those who already have varicose veins, these lifestyle changes can both alleviate uncomfortable symptoms as well as help delay the formation of new veins.
Most varicose veins are merely cosmetic issues, but veins with complications sometimes require more drastic intervention. If your veins are painful, uncomfortable, or are getting progressively worse, a phlebologist, or vein specialist, can help treat them. The most common vein treatment is sclerotherapy, wherein the doctor injects the veins with a solution that turns them into scar tissue, and after a few weeks, it fades away. New laser methods are also making it easier to treat veins quickly and painlessly, mostly as outpatients and without any anesthesia. For the most severe varicose veins, it’s possible to excise, or strip out, the vein entirely, although more serious treatments have their own risks, side effects, and complications. Plus, vein treatments still can’t guarantee that varicose veins won’t come back.
Varicose veins may not send you to an early grave, but they definitely take the fun out of wearing skirts, and they can be uncomfortable. As with most health issues, having an active, healthy lifestyle is the key to keeping your leg veins hale and hearty. If exercising and elevating don’t help remedy the progression of varicose and spider veins, compression hosiery is far more comfortable than most people realize. If enough people begin to take an interest in protecting their veins, maybe we can even turn it into a fashion statement.