What Are Varicose Veins?
Varicose veins (also known as varicoses or varicosities) occur when your veins (typically those in your lower legs) become enlarged, dilated, and overfilled with blood. They typically appear swollen and raised, having a bluish-purple or red color, and are often painful.
This condition is quite common, especially in women; around 1 in 4 adults has varicose veins.
Risk Factors of Varicose Veins
Some potential causes for varicose veins include:
- Age over 50
- Standing for long periods of time
- Family history of varicose veins
Causes of Varicose Veins
Veins have one-way valves that prevent blood from flowing backward. Varicose veins are the product of the failure of these valves; blood begins to collect in the veins rather than continuing toward your heart, causing these veins to enlarge. Varicose veins often affect the legs because those veins are the farthest from your heart, and without the help of properly functioning one-way valves, it is quite difficult for your heart to pump the blood upward against the force of gravity.
Symptoms of Varicose Veins
Primary symptoms include:
- Highly visible, misshapen veins (usually in the lower legs)
- Pain and/or swelling over or around the enlarged veins
- Heaviness and/or achiness over or around the enlarged veins
- Discoloration of the veins and/or the area around the veins
- In severe cases, symptoms can include:
- Significant bleeding
- The formation of ulcers or sores on your legs
- Blood clots
- Chronic inflammation
- Ruptured veins
- Diagnosis of Varicose Veins
Your doctor will likely examine your legs and visible veins while you’re sitting or standing to diagnose varicose veins. They may ask you about any pain or symptoms you’re having.
Your doctor may also want to do an ultrasound which allows them to see how blood is flowing in your veins.
Depending on the location, a venogram may be done to further assess your veins. During this test, your doctor injects a special dye into your legs and takes X-rays of the area. The dye appears on the X-rays, giving your doctor a better view of how your blood is flowing.
Tests such as ultrasounds or venograms help ensure that another disorder like a blood clot or a blockage isn’t causing the pain and swelling in your legs.
Treatment of Varicose Veins
In general, doctors are conservative when treating varicose veins. You’ll probably be advised to make changes to your lifestyle, instead of trying more aggressive treatments.
The following changes may help prevent varicose veins from forming or becoming worse:
- Avoid standing for extended periods of time.
- Lose weight or maintain a healthy weight.
- Exercise to improve your circulation.
- Use compression socks or stockings.
If you already have varicose veins, you should take these steps to prevent new varicose veins. You should also elevate your legs whenever you’re resting or sleeping.
Your doctor may advise you to wear special compression socks or stockings that decrease swelling and place enough pressure on your legs that blood can flow more easily to your heart.
If lifestyle changes aren’t working, or if your varicose veins are causing a lot of pain or damaging your overall health, your doctor might try a more invasive procedure.
Currently, a wide variety of minimally invasive treatment options for varicose veins are available.
- Sclerotherapy – a liquid/foam injection that blocks off a larger vein
- Microsclerotherapy – a liquid chemical injection that blocks off smaller veins
- Laser Surgery – a treatment that uses light energy to block off a vein
- Endovenous Ablation Therapy – heat and radiofrequency waves that block off a vein
- Endoscopic Vein Surgery – a treatment that uses a small, lighted scope that is inserted through a small incision to block off a vein
You should always talk to your doctor about your treatment options and the risks before choosing a method. The method recommended can depend on your symptoms, size, and location of the varicose vein.
Complications of Varicose Veins
- Aortic Dissection (Tears in one or more of the layers of the wall of the aorta)
- Ruptured Aortic Aneurysm
- Life-threatening internal bleeding
Outlook of Varicose Veins
Even if you make the necessary lifestyle changes to control your varicose veins and manage your pain, they normally get worse over time. While they may be unsightly, they usually don’t cause any long-term medical problems.
In severe cases, varicose veins can lead to ulcers or sores on your legs, blood clots, chronic inflammation, and your veins could even rupture.
You should see your doctor if you develop any of these symptoms. They may then suggest taking a more aggressive approach, such as surgery or other interventions.