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Varicose veins

Varicosity

 

Varicose veins are swollen, twisted, and enlarged veins that you can see under the skin. They are often red or blue in color. They most often appear in the legs, but can occur in other parts of the body.

Causes

 

Normally, one-way valves in your leg veins keep blood moving up toward the heart. When the valves do not work properly, they allow blood to back up into the vein. The vein swells from the blood that collects there, which causes varicose veins.

Varicose veins are common, and affect more women than men. They do not cause problems for most people. However, if the flow of blood through veins becomes worse, problems such as leg swelling and pain, blood clots, and skin changes may be present.

Risk factors include:

  • Older age
  • Being female (hormonal changes from puberty, pregnancy, and menopause can lead to varicose veins, and taking birth control pills or hormone replacement can increase your risk)
  • Being born with defective valves
  • Obesity
  • Pregnancy
  • History of blood clots in your legs
  • Standing or sitting for long periods of time
  • Family history of varicose veins

 

Symptoms

 

Symptoms of varicose veins include:

  • Fullness, heaviness, aching, and sometimes pain in the legs
  • Visible, swollen veins
  • Smaller veins that you can see on the surface of the skin, called spider veins.
  • Thigh or calf cramps (often at night)
  • Mild swelling of feet or ankles
  • Itching

If flow of blood through the veins becomes worse, symptoms may include:

  • Leg swelling
  • Leg or calf pain after sitting or standing for long periods
  • Skin color changes of the legs or ankles
  • Dry, irritated, scaly skin that can crack easily
  • Skin sores (ulcers) that do not heal easily
  • Thickening and hardening of the skin in the legs and ankles (this can happen over time)

 

Exams and Tests

 

Your health care provider will examine your legs to look for swelling, changes in skin color, or sores. Your provider also may:

  • Check blood flow in the veins
  • Rule out other problems with the legs (such as a blood clot)

 

Treatment

 

Your provider may suggest that you take the following self-care steps to help manage varicose veins:

  • Wear compression stockings to decrease swelling. These stockings gently squeeze your legs to move blood up towards your heart.
  • DO NOT sit or stand for long periods. Even moving your legs slightly helps keep the blood flowing.
  • Raise your legs above your heart 3 or 4 times a day for 15 minutes at a time.
  • Care for wounds if you have any open sores or infections. Your provider can show you how.
  • Lose weight if you are overweight.
  • Get more exercise. This can help you keep off weight and help move blood up your legs. Walking or swimming are good options.
  • If you have dry or cracked skin on your legs, moisturizing may help. However, some skin care treatments can make the problem worse. Talk to your provider before using any lotions, creams, or antibiotic ointments. Your provider can recommend lotions that can help.

If only a small number of varicose veins are present, the following procedures may be used:

  • Sclerotherapy. Salt water or a chemical solution is injected into the vein. The vein hardens and disappears.
  • Phlebectomy. Small surgical cuts are made in the leg near the damaged vein. The vein is removed through one of the cuts.

If the varicose veins are larger, longer, or more widespread on the leg, your provider will suggest one of the following:

  • Procedures that can be done in a provider's office or clinic, such as using a laser or radiofrequency
  • Varicose vein stripping, used to remove or tie off a large vein in the leg called the superficial saphenous vein.

 

Outlook (Prognosis)

 

Varicose veins tend to get worse over time. Taking self-care steps can help relieve achiness and pain, keep varicose veins from getting worse, and prevent more serious problems.

 

When to Contact a Medical Professional

 

Call your provider if:

  • Varicose veins are painful.
  • They get worse or do not improve with self-care, such as by wearing compression stockings or avoiding standing or sitting for too long.
  • You have a sudden increase in pain or swelling, fever, redness of the leg, or leg sores.
  • You develop leg sores that do not heal.

 

 

References

Freischlag JA, Heller JA. Venous disease. In: Townsend CM Jr, Beauchamp RD, Evers BM, Mattox KL, eds. Sabiston Textbook of Surgery. 20th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2017:chap 64.

Iafrati MD, O'Donnell TF. Varicose veins: Surgical treatment. In: Cronenwett JL, Johnston W, eds. Rutherford's Vascular Surgery. 8th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2014:chap 57.

Kabnick LS, Sadek M. Varicose veins: endovenous ablation and sclerotherapy. In: Cronenwett JL, Johnston KW, eds. Rutherford's Vascular Surgery. 8th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2014:chap 58.

 
  • Varicose veins

    Varicose veins

    Animation

  •  

    Varicose veins - Animation

    From the outside, your veins look like nothing more than a few faint blue lines under your skin. But inside your body, they work hard to transport blood from your organs to your heart. Sometimes, blood can get stuck in your veins and make them swell up so they really stick out. These swollen veins are called varicose veins. And if you have them, you may be putting a lot of effort into covering them up. Veins have valves in them that prevent blood from flowing the wrong way. They're kind of like the valves in your bathroom plumbing that prevent hot water in the water heater from backing up into the cold water supply. The valves inside your veins make sure that your blood keeps flowing in the right direction, toward your heart. But if those valves aren't working correctly, blood can back up and get stuck inside a vein. As the blood collects, the vein swells. So, what causes the valves in the veins to malfunction? Well, you may have been born with defective valves. Or, you might be putting on extra pressure on the veins in your legs if you stand for long periods of time, or you're pregnant. When you have varicose veins, you, and your doctor, should be able to tell just by looking at them. They look like raised, thick blue or purple veins. Varicose veins can also make your legs ache and your ankles swell. So, how are varicose veins treated? Well, first, your doctor will recommend rest and support for your varicose veins. Avoid standing for long periods of time, and prop up your feet on a pillow or box whenever you sit. Wearing elastic support hose can also help. If you're in a lot of pain from your varicose veins, or their appearance really bothers you, your doctor may recommend a treatment such as lasers to minimize the veins. Or, you may have a type of surgery called vein stripping. During this procedure, the surgeon threads a thin, plastic wire into each varicose vein and then pulls the vein out. At first, varicose veins are more of a cosmetic problem than a health issue. But over time, they can get worse. Some people develop sores, inflammation from phlebitis, clots, or their varicose vein breaks. Talk to your doctor if you have varicose veins, especially if they hurt or they don't improve from wearing support hose or staying off your feet. Call your doctor right away if you have intense pain, swelling, fever, or a sore on your leg.

  • Varicose veins

    Varicose veins - illustration

    Varicose veins are enlarged, twisted, painful superficial veins resulting from poorly functioning valves. Varicose veins usually occur in the veins of the legs, although it may occur elsewhere. It is a common condition, affecting mostly women.

    Varicose veins

    illustration

  • Circulatory system

    Circulatory system - illustration

    Blood used by the body is brought back to the heart and lungs by the veins of the body. Once the blood has gathered more oxygen from the lungs, it is pumped back out to the body through the arteries.

    Circulatory system

    illustration

  • Varicose veins

    Animation

  •  

    Varicose veins - Animation

    From the outside, your veins look like nothing more than a few faint blue lines under your skin. But inside your body, they work hard to transport blood from your organs to your heart. Sometimes, blood can get stuck in your veins and make them swell up so they really stick out. These swollen veins are called varicose veins. And if you have them, you may be putting a lot of effort into covering them up. Veins have valves in them that prevent blood from flowing the wrong way. They're kind of like the valves in your bathroom plumbing that prevent hot water in the water heater from backing up into the cold water supply. The valves inside your veins make sure that your blood keeps flowing in the right direction, toward your heart. But if those valves aren't working correctly, blood can back up and get stuck inside a vein. As the blood collects, the vein swells. So, what causes the valves in the veins to malfunction? Well, you may have been born with defective valves. Or, you might be putting on extra pressure on the veins in your legs if you stand for long periods of time, or you're pregnant. When you have varicose veins, you, and your doctor, should be able to tell just by looking at them. They look like raised, thick blue or purple veins. Varicose veins can also make your legs ache and your ankles swell. So, how are varicose veins treated? Well, first, your doctor will recommend rest and support for your varicose veins. Avoid standing for long periods of time, and prop up your feet on a pillow or box whenever you sit. Wearing elastic support hose can also help. If you're in a lot of pain from your varicose veins, or their appearance really bothers you, your doctor may recommend a treatment such as lasers to minimize the veins. Or, you may have a type of surgery called vein stripping. During this procedure, the surgeon threads a thin, plastic wire into each varicose vein and then pulls the vein out. At first, varicose veins are more of a cosmetic problem than a health issue. But over time, they can get worse. Some people develop sores, inflammation from phlebitis, clots, or their varicose vein breaks. Talk to your doctor if you have varicose veins, especially if they hurt or they don't improve from wearing support hose or staying off your feet. Call your doctor right away if you have intense pain, swelling, fever, or a sore on your leg.

  • Varicose veins

    Varicose veins - illustration

    Varicose veins are enlarged, twisted, painful superficial veins resulting from poorly functioning valves. Varicose veins usually occur in the veins of the legs, although it may occur elsewhere. It is a common condition, affecting mostly women.

    Varicose veins

    illustration

  • Circulatory system

    Circulatory system - illustration

    Blood used by the body is brought back to the heart and lungs by the veins of the body. Once the blood has gathered more oxygen from the lungs, it is pumped back out to the body through the arteries.

    Circulatory system

    illustration

A Closer Look

 

Talking to your MD

 

Self Care

 

Tests for Varicose veins

 

     

    Review Date: 6/6/2016

    Reviewed By: Deepak Sudheendra, MD, RPVI, Assistant Professor of Interventional Radiology & Surgery at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine, with an expertise in Vascular Interventional Radiology & Surgical Critical Care, Philadelphia, PA. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.

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