Most people know what varicose veins look like. They’re not pretty, but for roughly one in three people they are a fact of life. For some who are afflicted, the unsightly, knobby lumps and squiggly lines are more than just unattractive; they can be itchy and even painful or be the cause of non-healing wounds.
It’s not known precisely why some are afflicted and others aren’t, but there are several known factors that increase the risk of developing varicose veins. There are also minimally invasive treatment options that alleviate their associated symptoms or even eliminate them altogether.
Varicose veins appear visible through the skin as bulging, bluish twisted veins. A milder version known as Spider veins look like a small collection of red, blue, or purple lines beneath the skin.
Veins are blood vessels that carry blood back to your heart and contain one-way valves that prevent blood from flowing the wrong way. In a sense, they defy gravity.
When sitting or standing for long periods of time, blood can pool in the veins of your legs, causing them to weaken and stretch over time. If this happens near a valve, the valve may become leaky and allow blood to flow backward down to your foot due to gravity. This can have a domino effect on subsequent valves, causing blood to pool in the region and varicose veins to appear.
Though they are unsightly, varicose veins don’t often cause complications. They may produce aching as the day goes on and the skin around them can become itchy or inflamed, and even occasionally bleed or develop into non-healing wounds in severe cases.
Approximately five percent of people with varicose veins will experience one or more of these complications. Unfortunately, it can’t be predicted who will experience complications, but they generally don’t develop until several years after the varicose veins first become noticeable.
There is no way to predict the onset of varicose veins, but there are several factors that increase your risk of developing them. They generally appear in people age 30-70 and affect women more than men. Pregnant women are especially susceptible.
If you smoke, have a history of deep vein thrombosis (DVT), or a family history of varicose veins, you are also at risk. Other factors such as standing or sitting for long periods of time and a sedentary lifestyle lacking in exercise may also contribute to their onset.
You have no control over aging, your gender, or family history, but you can quit smoking and take measures to avoid a sedentary lifestyle.
Smoking is a powerful and difficult addiction to break. To quit smoking, you can try nicotine patches, medications, hypnotism, or cold turkey. Your doctor can partner with you to devise the best treatment options. I’ve found my patients have had the best success with a combination approach.
To avoid a sedentary lifestyle, at the minimum, take a brisk 30 minute walk three times a week. If you have a job that requires you to sit in one place for long periods of time, take a few minutes each hour to get up and move around.
Basically, be conscious of your inactivity and take measures to eliminate prolonged periods of inactivity where possible, including during long travel periods.
Many treatment options exist for people affected with varicose veins. You can first help yourself by putting your feet up at waist lever or higher when possible, and properly fitted compression stockings, warn all day, work well to relieve aching and discomfort.
In most cases, medical intervention through minimally invasive office-based procedures using laser or radiofrequency technology can help with varicose veins that cause severe aching or swelling of your legs. Most insurance will cover such procedures with a doctor’s referral.
While they are mostly nothing more than an unsightly blemish on our bodies—the reason why many people don’t wear shorts—sometimes varicose veins lead to more-serious problems and they may also signal a higher risk of other circulatory problems.
You should take measures to avoid them, and if they do appear you should discuss treatment options with your doctor to avoid future complications.