What are Varicose Veins?

Arteries bring oxygen-rich blood from your heart to the rest of your body. Veins return oxygen-poor blood back to your heart. Varicose veins are swollen veins that you can see through your skin. They often look blue, bulging, and twisted. Left untreated, varicose veins may worsen over time. Large varicose veins can cause aching and fatigue as well as skin changes like rashes, redness, and sores. As many as 40 million Americans, most of them women, have varicose veins.

You have two kinds of veins in your legs. Superficial veins lie close to your skin. Deep veins lie in groups of muscles. Deep veins lead to the vena cava, your body's largest vein, which runs directly to your heart. Perforating veins connect superficial veins to deep veins. Varicose veins occur in the superficial veins in your legs.

The blood in your leg veins must work against gravity to return to your heart. To help move blood back to your heart, your leg muscles squeeze the deep veins of your legs and feet. One-way flaps called valves in your veins keep blood flowing in the right direction. When your leg muscles contract, the valves inside your veins open. When your legs relax, the valves close. This prevents blood from flowing backward. The entire process of sending blood back to the heart is called the venous pump.

When you walk and your leg muscles squeeze, the venous pump works well. But when you sit or stand, especially for a long time, the blood in your leg veins can pool and the pressure in your veins can increase. Deep veins and perforating veins are usually able to withstand short periods of increased pressures. However, if you are a susceptible individual, your veins can stretch if you repeatedly sit or stand for a long time. This stretching can sometimes weaken the walls of your veins and damage your vein valves. Varicose veins or spider veins may result. Spider veins are mild varicose veins. They look like a nest of red or blue lines just under your skin. Spider veins are not a serious medical problem, but they can be a cosmetic concern to some people.

What are the symptoms?

If you have varicose veins, your symptoms may include:

  • Heavy, burning, tired, restless, or achy legs
  • Standing or sitting for too long may worsen your symptoms
  • You may also experience night cramps
  • You may notice small clusters of veins in a winding pattern on your leg, or soft, slightly tender knots of veins
  • In severe cases, you have slightly increased chances of developing deep vein thrombosis (DVT). DVT may cause sudden, severe leg swelling. DVT is a serious condition that requires immediate medical attention.

What causes varicose veins?

High blood pressure inside your superficial leg veins causes varicose veins.

Factors that can increase your risk for varicose veins include having a family history of varicose veins, being overweight, not exercising enough, smoking, standing or sitting for long periods of time, and having DVT. Women are more likely than men to develop varicose veins. Varicose veins usually affect people between the ages of 30 and 70.

Pregnant women have an increased risk of developing varicose veins, but the veins often return to normal within 1 year after childbirth. Women who have multiple pregnancies may develop permanent varicose veins.

What tests will I need?

First your physician asks you questions about your general health, medical history, and symptoms. In addition, your physician conducts a physical exam. Together these are known as a patient history and exam. Your physician will examine the texture and color of any prominent veins. He or she may apply a tourniquet or direct hand pressure to observe how your veins fill with blood. To confirm a diagnosis of varicose veins, your physician may order a duplex ultrasound test.

Duplex ultrasound uses high-frequency waves higher than human hearing can detect. Your physician uses duplex ultrasound to measure the speed of blood flow and to see the structure of your leg veins. The test can take approximately 20 minutes for each leg. Besides showing varicose veins, duplex ultrasound can help your physician decide whether your varicose veins are related to some other condition outside of the veins themselves.

How are varicose veins treated?

Varicose veins may sometimes worsen without treatment. Your physician will first try methods that don't require surgery to relieve your symptoms. If you have mild to moderate varicose veins, elevating your legs can help reduce leg swelling and relieve other symptoms. Your physician may instruct you to prop your feet up above the level of your heart 3 or 4 times a day for about 15 minutes at a time. When you need to stand for a long period of time, you can flex your legs occasionally to keep blood circulating.

Compression Stockings

For more severe varicose veins, your physician may prescribe compression stockings. Compression stockings are elastic stockings that squeeze your veins and stop excess blood from flowing backward. They can also help heal skin sores and prevent them from returning. You may be required to wear compression stockings daily for the rest of your life. However, they effectively treat varicose veins and may be all that you need to relieve pain and swelling and prevent future problems.

When these kinds of treatments alone do not relieve your varicose veins, you may require a surgical or minimally invasive treatment, depending upon the extent and severity of the varicose veins. These treatments include sclerotherapy, ablation, vein stripping, and laser treatment.
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