What Exactly Are Varicose Veins?

At some point you may have heard about varicose veins—those swollen, bulging veins visible just beneath the surface of the skin. Learn what causes varicose veins, how to prevent varicose veins, and how can you get rid of varicose veins.

What are varicose veins?

Veins carry blood from the tissues of the body back to the heart. In healthy veins, blood flows only in one direction back to the heart, but if this flow is interrupted it can lead to varicose veins.

To keep the blood flowing in the right direction, veins have valves inside them that act like one-way flaps. If the valves are weak or damaged, or if the walls of the veins are stretched out or weak then the blood can flow backwards. This causes blood to collect in the veins. This is especially true in the legs because gravity tends to pull blood toward the feet.

When the blood collects in the vein, it can become swollen, or varicose.

Symptoms of varicose veins

Varicose veins may be entirely symptom-free and cause no health problems. When symptomatic, varicose veins may cause:

  • Aching pain that may get worse when you stand or sit for a long time
  • Cramping or throbbing
  • A heavy feeling in the legs
  • Itchy or irritated rash
  • Skin darkening
  • Restless legs
  • Ankle and leg swelling

Varicose veins appear red, blue or skin-colored. They most often occur on the legs, but can also show up on the vagina and buttocks during pregnancy.

What are spider veins?

Spider veins, also known as telangiectasia, are similar to varicose veins but smaller. They are located at the surface of the skin and look like spider webs or tree branches. They are usually blue or red. Spider veins can appear on the legs or face.

Treatments for varicose veins

Several minimally invasive treatments are now available for varicose veins. You can usually go home on the day of the procedure and these have a shorter recovery time. Treatments include:

  • Sclerotherapy. A liquid or foam chemical is injected into the varicose or spider vein with a small needle. This irritates the lining of the vein, which causes it to stick together and seal shut. The closed vein will turn into scar tissue and the vein will fade within a few weeks.
  • Surface laser or intense pulsed light treatments. Bursts of focused light pass through the skin onto the vein. This heats the vein and causes it to seal shut. This does not require needles or injections, but the bursts of light can be painful. This is effective for spider veins and smaller varicose veins.
  • Endovenous thermal ablation. A small tube (catheter) is inserted into the varicose vein. A special probe is threaded through the tube. The probe creates heat using laser or radiofrequency energy. The vein seals shut and fades away over time.
  • VenaSeal. A catheter is inserted into the diseased vein and medical adhesive is injected to close the vein. The treated vein eventually fades away.
  • Ambulatory phlebectomy. The varicose vein is removed through several small cuts in the skin using a special hook.
  • Vein ligation and stripping. The vein is tied completely shut and removed through small cuts in the skin. This treatment is less commonly performed and mostly replaced by endovenous thermal ablation.

Whenever a varicose vein is closed or removed, the blood will naturally flow to surrounding healthy veins in the leg.

All of these treatments provide good results. In some cases, though, a closed vein may reopen or a removed vein may grow back. Also, these treatments do not stop new varicose veins from forming.

Risk factors for developing varicose veins

Several factors increase your chance of developing varicose and spider veins, including:

  • Increasing age
  • A personal or family history of vein problems
  • Hormonal changes that occur during puberty, pregnancy and menopause
  • Pregnancy
  • Being overweight or obese
  • Sitting or standing still for long periods
  • Sun exposure can also cause spider veins on the nose or cheeks of people with fair skin

Reduce your risk of developing varicose veins

You can reduce your risk of developing varicose veins and alleviate symptoms by:

  • Exercising regularly
  • Maintaining a healthy weight
  • Avoiding sitting or standing still for a long time
  • Elevating your legs whenever possible
  • Wearing elastic support stockings to help push the blood out of the legs
  • Avoiding wearing clothes that are tight around the waist, groin and legs.

All of these will encourage the blood to flow out of your legs. These, along with early treatment of varicose veins can keep your legs looking and feeling great.

How common are varicose veins?

Around 50 percent of American adults have some kind of ongoing (chronic) vein problem. Varicose veins occur in 10 to 30 percent of people. Women may have a higher risk of developing varicose veins. Spider veins are present in 50 to 66 percent of adults. They are more common in women than men.

Updated Oct. 11, 2017

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