Varicose veins are outwardly visible purple, swollen leg veins. Venous blood flow is normally aided by valves that prevent back flow and keep blood moving upward against the force of gravity. If these valves are weak or if blood flows slowly in the veins, the blood may pool, damage the valves, and cause the veins to bulge. Varicose veins are a form of venous insufficiency and are caused by the absence of normal venous valves, damage to superficial blood vessels, or slow blood flow.
Who is at Risk for Varicose Veins?
Varicose veins affect 1 in 2 people age 50 and over. They are more common in women than in men, and they run in families. Pregnant women may get varicose veins because of hormonal changes, increased blood volume, and the extra pressure that the baby exerts on the inferior vena cava. Varicose veins may also be caused by obesity or by long periods of standing.
Squiggly, bulging, or twisted bluish-purple veins appear beneath the surface of the skin on the back of the calves or the inside of the legs. Red or blue “spider” veins, or clusters of flooded capillaries, sometimes surround varicose veins. Varicose veins may cause other symptoms, including aching pain, tired or heavy legs, tingling, swelling, itching, redness, and skin irritation.
Exercise can improve all aspects of circulation, including a reduction in the appearance of varicose veins. Losing weight, avoiding long periods of standing, and elevating the legs if they become swollen can also prevent the formation of varicose veins. Treatment options range from wearing elastic support stockings to different types of repair or removal of the damaged veins. A physician who specializes in vein diseases should be consulted to determine the best treatment for each patient because many different options are available.
Texas Heart Institute www.texasheartinstitute.com/HIC/Topics/Cond/pvd.cfm
Medline Plus www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/varicoseveins.html
The National Women’s Health Information Center http://womenshealth.gov/faq/varicose.htm
American Heart Association www.americanheart.org/presenter.jhtml?identifier=3057360
Updated December 2009