What are varicose veins?
Varicose veins occur when your veins become enlarged, puffed-up, and overfilled with blood. Varicose veins typically appear swollen and upstretched, and have a bluish-purple or red color. They are often painful.
The condition is more common in women. Around 25 percent of all adults have varicose veins. Varicose veins, also called varicoses or varicosities, mostly appear on the lower legs.
Causes of varicose veins
Varicose veins occur when veins aren’t functioning properly. Veins have one-way valves that prevent blood from flowing backward. When these valves miscarry, blood begins to accumulate in the veins rather than continuing toward your heart. The veins then enlarge. Varicose veins often affect the legs. The veins there are the farthest from your heart, and gravity makes it harder for the blood to flow upward.
Some potential causes for varicose veins include:
- obesity or overweight
- standing for long periods of time
- family history of varicose veins
- age over 50
Symptoms of varicose veins
The primary symptoms of varicose veins are highly visible, distorted veins, usually on your legs which may be associated with swelling, pain, heaviness, and achiness over or around the enlarged veins.
In some cases, you can develop swelling and discoloration. In severe cases, the veins can bleed considerably, causing ulcers to form.
Diagnosing varicose veins
To diagnose varicose veins, your doctor may inspect your legs and visible veins while you’re sitting or standing. They may ask you about any pain or symptoms you’re having.
Your doctor may perform an ultrasound to check your blood flow. This is a noninvasive test that uses high-frequency sound waves. It allows your doctor to see how blood is flowing in your veins.
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A venogram may be done to further assess your veins, depending on the location. 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 helps to rule out other conditions like a blood clot or a blockage.
Treating and preventing varicose veins
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 deteriorating:
- Avoid standing for too long.
- Lose or maintain a healthy weight.
- Exercise regularly to improve your circulation.
- Use 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.
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Your doctor may advise you to wear special compression socks or stockings. These place enough pressure on your legs so that blood can flow more easily to your heart. They also decrease swelling.
If lifestyle changes are unsuccessful in treating varicose veins, or if your varicose veins are causing severe pains and affecting your overall health, your doctor might try an invasive procedure.
Vein ligation and stripping is a surgical treatment that requires anesthesia. During the procedure, your surgeon makes cuts in your skin, cuts the varicose vein, and removes it through the openings. Although modernized variations of vein-stripping surgeries have been developed, they are less commonly performed because newer, less invasive options are available.
Other treatment options
Currently, a wide variety of minimally invasive treatment options for varicose veins are available. These include:
- slerotherapy using a liquid or foam chemical injection to block off a larger vein
- microsclerotherapy, using a liquid chemical injection to block off smaller veins
- laser surgery, using light energy to block off a vein
- endovenous ablation therapy, using heat and radiofrequency waves to block off a vein
- endoscopic vein surgery, using a small lighted scope inserted through a small incision to block off a vein
The method recommended can depend on your symptoms, size, and location of the varicose vein.
Varicose veins normally deteriorate or worsen over time. This is true even if you make the necessary lifestyle changes to control them and manage your pain. While they may be hideous, they usually don’t cause any long-term medical problems.
In some cases, varicose veins can lead to ulcers or sores on your legs, blood clots, or chronic inflammation. Your veins could rupture in severe cases.