Around fifty to fifty-five percent of women and forty to forty-five percent of men experience some sort of vein problem, with varicose veins affecting half of all people over the age of fifty. Varicose veins are enlarged veins that can be blue, red, or flesh-coloured. Most often occurring on your thighs, the back of your calves, or the inside of your leg, they may be swollen and twisted, bulging above the surface of your skin.
While you might feel they’re unsightly, and they can occasionally cause slight discomfort, varicose veins themselves are seldom a serious health issue. They’re caused by weak or damaged valves in the veins that carry blood back to the heart for recirculation. Normally, the valves act as one-way flaps to prevent blood flowing backwards as it moves up your legs, but if the valves are weak, blood can leak back into the veins where it collects and causes swelling and discoloration. Any vein in your body can become varicose, but those in the legs are generally the most affected because of the pressure of body weight, force of gravity, and distance from the heart.
You may have been born with weak vein valves, particularly if you have family members who are also affected by varicose veins, or the valves can become weakened and lose elasticity over time. The hormonal changes that occur during puberty, pregnancy, and menopause are thought to play a role; taking birth control pills or other medication containing oestrogen and progesterone could also contribute to the forming of varicose veins. They may appear for the first time during pregnancy – not only because of hormonal changes, but also because pregnancy increases the volume of blood in your body but decreases the flow from your blood to your pelvis. As the pregnancy progresses, your uterus exerts increasing pressure on the veins in your legs. Being overweight also increases the likelihood of developing varicose veins, and so does a lack of movement – if you sit or stand in the same position for long periods of time, your veins have to work harder to pump blood back up to your heart.
Varicose veins usually don’t cause any major discomfort, but you may notice an achy or heavy feeling in your legs especially after sitting or standing for a long time. Some people experience occasional throbbing, swelling, and muscle cramping in the lower legs. In rare cases, varicose veins can lead to more serious problems such as sores or skin ulcers, superficial blood clots just below the skin, or the potentially life-threatening deep vein thrombosis which is caused by a blood clot in a deeper vein. If you suspect any of these conditions, you should see your doctor immediately.
Pregnancy-related varicose veins generally subside within three months to a year after the birth. For others, self-care and lifestyle changes can help ease symptoms and keep the veins from getting any worse. Losing excess weight takes pressure off your legs, and a low-salt diet will minimise swelling caused by water retention. Make sure you eat plenty of fibre to avoid constipation, which can contribute to varicose veins. Regular exercise particularly in the form of walking, running, or cycling encourages better circulation of the blood in your legs, and if you have to stand for long periods of time try shifting your weight from one leg to the other. If you sit for most of the day, make sure you get up and move around every half hour or so. Avoid high-heeled shoes – low heels work your calf muscles more efficiently, which is better for the veins – and don’t wear clothes that are very tight around your waist, legs, or groin.
Some experts believe that sitting with your legs crossed can increase circulation problems and make varicose veins worse. Elevating your legs above the level of your heart whenever possible is helpful; best of all is to lie down flat with your legs resting on three or four pillows. Compression stockings, available either over the counter in medical supply stores and pharmacies or on prescription from your doctor, put helpful pressure on veins to encourage improved circulation.
In some cases, doctors may prescribe further intervention. Modern technology means that there are more options than in the past, and procedures are less invasive and more effective. Sclerotherapy involves the injection of a solution to close the veins, and laser surgery can be used to achieve the same result without incisions or needles. Larger veins can be treated with catheter-assisted procedures. Only if the varicose veins are severe is full surgical intervention necessary to remove, strip, or tie off the vein. Be cautious about responding to advertisements offering ‘unique’, ‘permanent’, or ‘painless’ methods to treat varicose veins; always check with your doctor about any possible health risks or side effects.
If you’re prone to varicose veins, there’s no way to prevent them completely, but improving your circulation and muscle tone and watching your weight can certainly help keep them at bay.
Other articles you may be interested in:
Get rid of spider veins
Who should be performing beauty procedures?
Everything you need to know about keratosis pilaris
Superpower your immune system
The low down on laser skin rejuvenation