Varicose Veins

What are Varicose Veins?

Healthy veins typically function by carrying blood from organs and tissues back to the heart. In addition to transporting waste products, they store unused blood. When veins are unable to properly circulate their contents, they can become hardened, enlarged, and overfilled.

This in turn leads to the formation of varicose veins. A chronic condition that can sometimes be lifelong, they affect millions of people every year, particularly women over the age of 50. While most often seen in the legs, they can appear in many other places throughout the body.

Varicose veins might be unsightly, but they are not usually a serious problem. The exact causes for their formation are not quite fully understood. However, some suspected contributing factors include pregnancy, congenital heart valve conditions, long periods of standing, a sedentary lifestyle, menopause, and obesity.

What are the Symptoms of Varicose Veins?

Many people with varicose veins experience no symptoms. Rather, the condition is more of a cosmetic annoyance than a health concern.

However, sometimes patients may notice:

  • Pain
  • Discomfort
  • Swollen blood vessels
  • Skin discoloration
  • Heavy legs
  • Swollen legs
  • Itching
  • Bruising
  • Ulcers around the ankles

When veins become painful, swollen, and change color, it may be an indication of an underlying problem with blood circulation.

Varicose Veins Causes

In nearly 50% of people who have varicose veins, the condition is caused by a genetic predisposition that runs in their families. Genetics can contribute to the weakening of vein walls and the valves inside the veins, which control blood flow.

Natural ageing can also play a role in the development of varicose veins when the veins and vein walls lose their elasticity. Pregnancy creates a circulatory imbalance by increasing the amount of blood volume, while decreasing the blood flow from the legs to the pelvis. Although this change in circulation helps nourish developing babies, it also puts more stress on leg veins and causes the veins to bulge. Hormonal changes during pregnancy may also contribute to the formation of varicose veins.

Obesity exerts an inordinate amount of downward pressure on legs, which can increase the susceptibility of varicose veins developing. Jobs that require standing or even sitting in the same position for long periods at a time can also cause veins to become pressure-stressed.

How are Varicose Veins Treated?

There is no cure for varicose veins, but several treatments are available.

Most methods consist of self-care and lifestyle changes. Regular physical exercise and losing extra weight promote better blood circulation and can help minimize their appearance. Elastic bandages and compression stockings are also beneficial to circulation and are often ideal solutions for alleviating discomfort and preventing blood clots.

Additionally, various medical procedures can be done if self-care is not effective. Sclerotherapy involves injecting a saline solution into the vessels, causing them to collapse and fade away. Laser therapy improves discoloration, while ambulatory phlebectomy, vein stripping, and radiofrequency ablation remove the offending tissues.

Varicose Veins Prevention

Although varicose veins may not be preventable in all cases, the best course of prevention is improving blood circulation with diet, exercise, and choices of apparel that do not restrict blood flow.

Ways to prevent varicose veins:

  • Maintaining a normal, healthy weight for an individual’s age and height.
  • Avoiding excess salt, which causes water retention and related swelling, which puts pressure on veins.
  • Exercising, particularly adopting a walking routine, to maintain a healthy blood flow.
  • Elevating legs periodically during the day by lying down and placing them on pillows.
  • Avoiding long periods of standing.
  • Wearing low-heeled shoes or flats, which increases circulation by requiring more movement from calf muscles, instead of wearing heels.
  • Wearing loose clothing around the areas of the waist, legs, and groin.
  • Uncrossing your legs while sitting, which can inhibit circulation.
  • Wearing support hosiery or compression hosiery.
Last Reviewed:
September 14, 2016
Last Updated:
September 10, 2017