Varicose veins are enlarged, twisted blood vessels near the skin surface of the legs. The veins can be unsightly and uncomfortable. Symptoms may include a heavy, aching feeling in the legs, a burning sensation, itching above the affected veins, and occasional pain.
Less troubling are sunburst patches of finer veins, called spider veins, that can appear on the skin of the legs, ankles, or face. Spider veins don’t usually cause pain or interfere with circulation, though sometimes they can ache or burn.
What causes varicose veins?
As part of the circulatory system, leg veins, along with leg muscles, work to send blood back toward the heart, and are equipped with tiny valves to keep the force of gravity from pulling blood back toward the feet. With varicose veins, there’s an abnormality or weakness in the wall of the veins, which prevents the blood from moving normally.
Hereditary and hormonal factors both affect a person's risk of developing varicose veins. They run in families, and women tend to get them more often than men. Hormonal changes that occur during pregnancy and menopause raise a woman’s risk.
Prolonged standing or inactivity can play a role in people genetically inclined to develop varicose veins, as can obesity and smoking. Crossing your legs, or straining because of constipation, have been only theoretically linked with varicose veins.
What if you do nothing?
Though varicose veins are usually benign and more of a cosmetic than a medical concern, the veins may worsen with time. If you have a severe case, especially one that involves leg sores, contact your doctor.
Spider veins in the legs may fade eventually on their own. If they are too unsightly, you can get medical treatment.
Home remedies for varicose veins
- Support your legs. Special support stockings, available at surgical supply stores, may help improve blood flow and symptoms, although they won’t cure varicose veins. These stockings, which can be custom fitted, are put on in the morning before your feet touch the floor and taken off before you go to bed.
- Elevate your legs. When you get a chance, lie down for 15 minutes with your legs on a pillow, elevated above your heart. Or rest your feet on a stool if you're sitting down.
- Engage in light to moderate exercise. Walking or swimming, for example, improve overall circulation, without increasing pressure on the legs. You should probably avoid strenuous running, jumping, aerobic dance, or training with heavy weights, since very vigorous or high-impact activity can cause pain or swelling in the legs.
- Avoid prolonged standing or sitting. This will keep blood from pooling in your legs. Get up periodically and walk around.
- Perform simple heel rises. These will get the calf muscle pumping blood back to the heart. Stand flat-footed, then rise up onto the balls of your feet, hold that position momentarily, then go back to the floor. Repeat 10 to 20 times.
- If you are obese, strive to reduce to a healthy weight for your age and height. Weight gain may cause new varicose veins to appear.
- If you smoke, quit.
- Don’t wear tight underwear.
How to prevent varicose veins
You can’t prevent varicose veins if you’re prone to developing them, but you can prevent them from getting worse or lessen discomfort from them. Use the home remedies described above.
When to call your doctor about varicose veins
Contact your doctor if you develop any redness or tenderness, or if you notice a distinct swelling along the length of a varicose vein in your leg. You may have superficial phlebitis, a vein inflammation. Also contact your doctor if you develop a sore on your leg related to a varicosity. If you are concerned about the appearance of varicose veins, talk to your doctor while they are still in the early stages.
What your doctor will do
Your doctor may first suggest trying compression stockings. But if varicose veins are still causing problems, your doctor may suggest a treatment using either a laser or radiofrequency energy to seal off smaller veins. Another option is sclerotherapy, which calls for the injection of a solution that hardens the affected veins and blocks the blood flow. The blocked veins form a kind of scar tissue and are eventually absorbed, usually months later.
There are also surgical methods to remove varicose veins, including micro-incisions to remove the vein. Micro-incisions have general replaced the more invasive traditional surgical method called stripping, where surgeons remove the veins closes to the skin surface. Blood then reroutes itself through veins that lie deeper in the skin. Your doctor will examine you to determine if you are a suitable candidate for surgery, and which procedure would work best for you.
Also see How Can I Get Rid of Spider Veins?