May 14, 2022
Almost everyone has seen someone with varicose veins in their legs. Or maybe you even have them yourself. They have the appearance of swollen, twisted, bluish “ropes” which are veins that lie just underneath the skin. Most of the time varicose veins affect the legs, although they can appear in other places in the body. Hemorrhoids are varicose veins that form in the rectum and varicose veins can develop in the esophagus, the liver, and even the stomach. So-called “spider” veins are also a form of varicose veins.
Normal Vein Functioning
Before we get into what causes varicose veins, let’s look at the function of normal veins, that are blood vessels that bring deoxygenated blood back from other parts of your body to your heart. Valves within the veins open and close to prevent the blood from flowing backward and pooling in the legs. Veins rely on the contraction and relaxation of your muscles, plus the help of these valves, to help blood flow toward the heart.
This contrasts with arteries, which function to carry oxygenated blood from your heart to the tissues of your body. Arteries don’t have valves as they are able to take advantage of the pressure of the pumping from the heart.
Varicose Veins - Causes and Symptoms
When the valves in the veins become weak or damaged, the blood can backflow and pool in the veins, stretching them and causing damage to the veins themselves. This backflow is also known as venous insufficiency or venous reflux.
Most of the time, varicose veins are caused by an increase in the pressure to the vein wall because of additional blood volume inside the veins. This increase in pressure can come from pregnancy, carry extra body weight, or can run in the family as some people seem to have a genetic predisposition for varicose veins.
The risk of developing varicose veins increases as you age, if you either sit or stand for long periods of time, you are overweight or obese, or have a family history of varicose veins. Pregnancy, especially multiple pregnancies, greatly increases a woman’s risk. Symptoms include bulging, bluish veins underneath the skin of your legs, swelling in the legs, aching or heaviness, leg cramps at night, discoloration of the skin, and itching. Your symptoms may get worse if you are on your feet for a long time or sit for a long time and get better when you lie down or put your feet up.
Diagnosis is based on your health professional asking you about your symptoms and a physical exam. Sometimes, the doctor will order an ultrasound or other tests to get a better look at the condition of the veins. Complications from untreated varicose veins can range from skin color changes, skin ulcers or sores, and even deep vein thrombosis, which is a clot in the deeper veins of the legs and is a serious condition requiring medical treatment.
Occasionally, varicose veins can spontaneously rupture and bleed or will bleed if you sustain some type of trauma to the skin overlying the vein. Many times, this bleeding will not stop without medical attention and can result in the loss of a serious amount of blood.
Prevention and Treatment of Varicose Veins
Avoid standing or sitting for prolonged periods time and aim for a healthy body weight. Keep active and exercise regularly, as this helps the pumping of blood through your veins. If you already have varicose veins, consult with your health care provider before beginning a new exercise program, as strenuous exercise can sometimes make varicose veins worse. When sitting, try to sit with your legs elevated above the level of your heart, as this eases blood flow and decreases the pressure on your veins.
Treatments vary, depending on the severity of your condition. There are several effective medical procedures including closing off the varicose veins with laser or radiofrequency energy. Sometimes liquids are injected into the veins to close them off, especially with spider veins. This procedure is called sclerotherapy. Veins can also be surgically removed. For treatment options, seek out a highly experienced specialist and speak extensively about the choices you might have.
A study published in the American Heart Association’s journal Circulationfound that the collagen seen in varicose veins was altered compared to the collagen found in normal veins. A study published in Laser Science used marine collagen as an effective part of a supplement formula designed to strengthen the vein’s walls.