Varicose veins, also known as varicosis or varicosity, occur when your veins become over-filled with blood. Varicose veins are often painful and unsightly, with a bluish-purple or red coloration. Often, varicose veins appear swollen and raised.
The condition is very common, especially in women. According to the United States Department of Health and Human Services, half of all Americans over the age of 50 suffer from varicose veins (HHS). In most cases, varicose veins appear on the lower legs.
Varicose veins occur when the vein is not functioning properly. Veins have one-way valves that prevent blood from flowing backwards. When these valves fail, blood begins to collect in the vein rather than continuing toward your heart. Varicose veins often affect the legs, since they are the farthest from the heart and gravity makes it harder for the blood to flow upward.
Some potential causes for this include:
- chronic heart valve conditions (usually a congenital issue)
- standing for long periods of time
- pressure on the midsection of the body (specifically the abdomen)
- obesity (this adds weight to the body and increases the pressure on the legs)
The primary symptom of varicose veins is the appearance of highly visible, misshapen veins, usually on the legs. You may also suffer from pain, swelling, heaviness, and aches in the legs.
In some cases, you will have swelling, discoloration, or ulcers around the ankles as well.
To diagnose varicose veins, your doctor will typically examine your legs and visible veins while you are sitting or standing. He or she may ask you about any pain or symptoms you are experiencing.
Your doctor may also want to do an ultrasound to check your blood flow. This is a non-invasive test that uses high-frequency sound waves. It allows your doctor to see how the blood is flowing within your veins.
Less commonly, an angiogram may be ordered to further assess your veins. During the angiogram, a special dye is injected into your legs and X-rays are taken of the area. The dye appears on the X-rays, giving your doctors a better view of how your blood is flowing.
Tests such as an ultrasound or angiogram help ensure that another disorder, such as a blood clot or a blockage, is not causing the pain and swelling in your legs.
In general, doctors are conservative when treating varicose veins. You will probably be advised to make changes in your lifestyle techniques, instead of trying more aggressive treatments.
The following changes can help prevent varicose veins from forming:
- avoid standing for extended periods of time
- avoid excessive sun exposure
- lose weight (or maintain a healthy weight)
- exercise to improve your leg strength
- refrain from crossing your legs for extended periods of time
If you already suffer from varicose veins, you should take the steps above to prevent new varicose veins. You should also elevate your legs whenever you are resting or sleeping.
Your doctor may advise you to wear special compression pantyhose or stockings. These place pressure on the legs in a good way, so the blood can flow more easily to your heart. The level of compression varies, but most types of compression pantyhose are available in drugstores or medical supply stores.
If the lifestyle techniques are not working or if your pain is severe, your doctor might try a more invasive procedure.
Vein stripping is a surgical operation that requires anesthesia and a recovery time of about three to six weeks. During the procedure, a surgeon removes your varicose veins through an incision. It is done only if the varicose veins are causing a lot of pain or damaging your overall health. According to the National Institutes of Health, vein stripping surgeries are less common today, since newer, less-invasive options are available (NIH).
Other Treatment Options
Other treatment options for varicose veins use lasers or radiofrequency to either remove the veins or seal off blood flow. Such procedures may cause bruising or swelling immediately afterward, but with time they improve the apperance of the legs. You should always talk to your doctor about your treatment options and the risks before choosing a method.
Varicose veins normally get worse over time, even if you make the necessary lifestyle changes to control them and manage your pain. While they may be unsightly, they usually do not cause any long-term medical problems.
In some cases, varicose veins can lead to ulcers (or sores) on your legs, blood clots, or chronic inflammation. In severe cases, the veins could rupture. If you develop any of these symptoms, you should call your doctor. He or she may then decide to take a more aggressive approach, such as surgery or laser treatments.