Most of the time, varicose veins aren’t a cause for concern. Dangerous complications can occur, but they’re rare.

Varicose veins are fairly common, affecting about 23 percent of adults in the United States.

These dark veins tend to bulge out under the skin, making them easy to spot. They’re most likely to appear on the lower legs, but they can also develop elsewhere.

Continue reading as we take a closer look at varicose veins, their potential complications, and signs that you should see a doctor.

Varicose veins are veins that are swollen and twisted, making them bulge. If you run your fingers over them, you can feel the bumps. They’re typically purplish-blue or red in color.

Varicose veins can occur anywhere. It may surprise you to know that hemorrhoids are a type of varicose vein.

While they can develop anywhere, varicose veins are most often found in the legs. That’s because the veins in the legs must work against gravity when circulating blood.

So, what exactly causes these veins to become swollen?

Basically, varicose veins are caused by increased blood pressure in the veins. You might develop varicose veins if you have weak or damaged valves within your blood vessels.

The valves inside your veins work by ensuring that blood flows in one direction and doesn’t flow backward. When these valves weaken, it can cause blood to pool in the vein rather than move forward. This can cause the vein to stretch and twist.

Anyone can develop varicose veins. They’re more common in women, possibly due to hormonal changes. They’re also more common in older adults due to the effect of aging on veins.

Other factors that can increase your risk include:

  • a family history of varicose veins
  • obesity
  • pregnancy
  • prolonged standing or sitting
  • smoking

What about spider veins?

You’ve probably also heard of spider veins, which are in the same family as varicose veins.

Spider veins are smaller clusters of twisted veins, usually red or blue in color. You can see them under the skin, but they don’t bulge out.

Spider veins are painless and tend to show up on the face or legs. While you may not like their appearance, spider veins aren’t physically harmful.

Most people don’t develop serious problems due to varicose veins. Complications are rare, but can include:

Research also suggests that people with varicose veins are at increased risk of:

  • Deep vein thrombosis (DVT). This is when a blood clot develops in a deep vein, usually in the thigh or lower leg.
  • Pulmonary embolism. This is when a blood clot breaks off and travels to the lungs, which can be life threatening.

Further studies are needed to determine whether the link between these conditions is due to a common set of risk factors.

Most of the time, varicose veins aren’t a cause for concern. Besides the outward appearance of these veins, you may have other symptoms, such as:

  • throbbing or aching in the area of the vein
  • itching, burning around the vein
  • dry, irritated skin
  • leg heaviness and fatigue
  • muscle cramping
  • pain when you sit or stand for a long time

See your doctor if you’re concerned about your veins or if you can’t find relief from the discomfort they cause.

Seek medical attention if you notice any of the following in regard to your varicose veins:

  • darker patches of skin, sores, or ulcers
  • bleeding veins
  • veins that are painful and feel hot
  • persistent pain and swelling

If a blood clot breaks free and travels to the lungs, it can be potentially life threatening. Shortness of breath, which can be sudden or gradual, is the most common symptom of a pulmonary embolism. Other symptoms may include:

If you have shortness of breath, with or without any of the symptoms listed above, call 911 or your local emergency number immediately.

Varicose veins don’t always require treatment. However, they can sometimes worsen, which can increase the risk of complications.

Wearing compression stockings can improve the function of your veins and leg muscles and help relieve symptoms. You can buy over-the-counter compression stockings at most pharmacies and where medical supplies are sold, or your doctor can write a prescription for a specific type.

Here are some other things to keep in mind:

  • Varicose veins that develop during pregnancy may improve on their own.
  • You can seek treatment, even if your only concern is their appearance.
  • Self-care measures, like regular exercise or wearing compression stockings, aren’t always enough to relieve pain, discomfort, or other issues you may experience with varicose veins.

For varicose veins that aren’t severe, your doctor may recommend the following treatments:

  • Sclerotherapy. This is a procedure in which the doctor injects a solution into the veins, causing scarring and shrinking. Varicose veins should fade within a few weeks. The procedure can be done in your doctor’s office.
  • Laser treatment. This procedure doesn’t involve needles or incisions. Instead, bursts of light are sent into small varicose veins, after which they slowly fade away.

For more advanced or stubborn varicose veins, your doctor may recommend:

  • Catheter-assisted radiofrequency or laser energy. These procedures may be more helpful for larger varicose veins.
  • High ligation and vein stripping. In this procedure, a vein is tied off before it connects to a deep vein. The vein is then removed via small incisions.
  • Ambulatory phlebectomy. This procedure involves removing smaller varicose veins through small skin punctures.
  • Endoscopic vein surgery. This procedure is generally a last resort. It’s likely to be used when leg ulcers are involved and other treatments have already been tried.

You may not be able to completely prevent varicose veins, but there are steps you can take to make them less likely to develop.

If you already have small varicose veins, these steps may also prevent the veins from getting worse.

  • Do some type of exercise every day. This can help improve your circulation and prevent blood from pooling in your veins.
  • Manage your weight. Carrying extra weight puts added pressure on your veins.
  • Cut back on salt. Too much salt may raise your blood pressure and cause fluid retention.
  • Avoid tight-fitting clothing and high heels. These can restrict your blood flow and make it easier for blood to pool in weaker veins.
  • Elevate your legs above heart level. Done several times a day, this can help reduce fluid retention and blood pooling in your legs.
  • Avoid standing or sitting for long periods. Set an alarm as a reminder to move around for a few minutes each hour. Try to elevate your legs if you can.
  • Avoid smoking. Nicotine can cause blood vessels to tighten, which restricts blood flow. Smoking also weakens blood vessel walls, raises blood pressure, and increases the likelihood of blood clots.

Varicose veins are dark, bulging veins that tend to appear on the legs. These veins aren’t usually dangerous, but there can sometimes be complications, such as blood clots, bleeding, and skin ulcers.

If you do have varicose veins, self-care measures, such as elevating your legs and wearing compression stockings, may relieve symptoms.

Treatment for more severe cases includes injections, laser therapy, and surgery. You can get treatment even if your only concerns are cosmetic.

If you have any questions about veins that look different to you, make sure to talk to your doctor about possible complications and treatment options.