Heart & Vascular Institute

Varicose Veins

What are varicose veins?

Varicose veins are enlarged, twisted veins that occur just below the surface of the skin. These blue, swollen veins are commonly seen on legs, ankles and feet. Tiny valves in the veins in our legs keep our blood flowing against gravity up to our heart. The valves open as the blood flows upward toward our heart and then close to stop the blood from returning to our legs. If some of the valves are weakened, they do not stop the blood from flowing back into our legs and pooling in our veins. This increases the pressure in our veins that causes them to swell, leading to varicose veins. For many people, varicose veins are simply a cosmetic concern. However for others, they are painful and can lead to more serious medical problems.

What causes Varicose Veins?

Generally, varicose veins are caused by either an increase in leg pressure, damage to leg veins or damage to valves within leg veins. More specifically, these conditions can be a result of:

  • Aging. As you age, your veins stretch and valves weaken, becoming more susceptible to develop into Varicose Veins.
  • Genetics. Some people are born with weak or defective valves that will develop into varicose veins later on in life. Also, if a family member has varicose veins, you are more likely to develop them.
  • Pregnancy. During pregnancy, your body goes through a circulatory change to support the fetus but this decreases blood flow from your legs to your pelvis, which can result in temporary varicose veins. Usually in this case, varicose veins improve without medical treatment a few months after delivery.

What increases your risk of developing varicose veins?

The following factors increase your risk of developing varicose veins:

  • Age. As you age, the valves and veins that regulate your blood flow weaken. People between the age of 30 and 70 are most likely to develop varicose veins.
  • Pregnancy, menopause, and pre-menstruation. Women go through hormonal changes during these time periods in their life and the hormones relax vein walls.
  • Genetics. If someone in your family has varicose veins, the probability that you will develop them during your life increases.
  • Obesity. A change in weight places extra pressure on your veins.
    Standing or sitting for long periods of time. Blood does not flow as well if you stay in the same position for an extended amount of time.

What are the symptoms of varicose veins?

The most common symptom is the unsightly appearance of varicose veins. They are swollen, twisted, bluish veins, which resemble cords threaded in your legs, ankles and feet. They can cause mild symptoms such as a dull ache, burning or heaviness in your legs, mild swelling or muscle cramping or slight itching of the skin over the varicose veins. More severe and serious complications include:

  • Buildup of fluid or severe swelling of legs and ankles. This sudden swelling can mean that there is a blood clot in a deep vein.
  • Skin color changes around your ankles and lower leg.
  • Skin ulcers.
  • Dry, stretched, swollen skin.
  • Major bleeding or bruising after a minor injury. This occurs because the skin over a varicose vein is extremely thin.
  • Superficial thrombophlebitis. This is when a blood clot or inflammation develops in a small vein near the surface of your skin.

Varicose veins are common and generally not considered a serious health problem. However, if your pain increases or you experience one or more of the severe symptoms, call your doctor.

How are varicose veins diagnosed?

Because they are diagnosed by appearance, the most common and successful way to diagnose a varicose vein is through a physical examination and a review of your medical history. If you are considering surgery, an ultrasound can be done to pinpoint the location of the vein problem. An ultrasound studies your blood flow to see if the valves within the veins are functioning normally.

What are the treatment options for varicose veins?

The first and often most successful treatment option for varicose veins is home treatment. This includes increasing your exercise, watching your weight and diet and elevating your legs on a regular basis. All of these measures naturally help your blood flow more efficiently through your body. However, if these treatments prove unsuccessful there are less-invasive, painless procedures available on an outpatient basis.

  • Vein Stripping. During this procedure, incisions are made over the varicose vein and the vein is either removed or tied off.
  • Radiofrequency Ablation. Radiofrequency energy is used inside the vein to scar and close it off.
  • Laser therapy. Laser energy scars and destroys the varicose vein causing it to close up and disappear.
  • Sclerotherapy. A chemical (sclerosant) is injected into the varicose vein to damage and scar the inside lining of the vein so it closes.
  • Ambulatory Phlebectomy. This procedure is done to remove smaller varicose veins through a series of tiny skin punctures.
  • Compression Stockings. These stockings are worn all day. They continually squeeze the legs helping the veins and leg muscles move blood more easily through your body.

How can varicose veins be prevented?

Although you cannot fully prevent varicose veins, improving your circulation and muscle tone can help reduce the risk of developing additional varicose veins and relieve painful symptoms.

  • Wear compression stockings.
  • Regularly elevate your legs to keep the blood from pooling in your veins.
  • Avoid standing or sitting for long periods of time.
  • Exercise/control your weight.
  • Avoid high heels and tight clothes around your waist, legs and groin area.

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