In this article we will take a look at different types of varicose veins. We will discuss their symptoms, what the causes usually are and what you can do to prevent or treat them.
We have another article dedicated to varicose veins in pregnancy. If you are suffering from this condition while expecting, read that article for more information about why it happens and how to treat it in your situation.
What are varicose veins?
Varicose veins are enlarged, swollen or twisted veins which have dilated and overfilled with blood. Varicose veins typically appear swollen and raised, and have a bluish-purple or red color. They are often itchy or painful.
What are Spider veins?
Spider veins are a smaller version of varicose veins that can appear as red or blue lines in a webbed pattern. These are generally just a cosmetic issue, although it could also be a warning sign of the onset of varicose veins.
Varicose veins is an extremely common condition, especially in women, particularly if they are pregnant or nursing. Around 25 percent of all adults have varicose veins and according to the American College of Phlebology, up to 50 percent of American women may develop varicose veins at some point in their lives.
What are the symptoms of varicose veins?
Signs and symptoms of varicose veins include:
- Bulging, bluish veins
- Swelling of the ankle or leg (edema)
- Heavy aching feet or legs
- Night time leg cramps
In more severe cases of varicose veins, your activity may be limited.
Your symptoms may get worse when you sit or are on your feet for long periods of time. They often feel better when you lie down or put your feet up.
How will my doctor diagnose that I have Varicose Veins?
To diagnose varicose veins, your doctor will do a physical exam and ask about your symptoms, family history, activity levels, and lifestyle. If necessary, your doctor may assess the health of your leg veins using an ultrasound.
What Causes Varicose Veins?
Varicose veins develop when veins aren’t functioning properly, often affecting the legs and/or the pubic area. Veins have one-way valves that prevent blood – which is often flowing upwards against gravity – from flowing backwards. When these valves weaken, blood begins to pool in the veins rather than continuing up towards your heart. The veins then bulge and twist due to the increased volume of blood.
Although the weakening of these one-way valves and subsequent varicose veins can be inherited, there are some factors other than genes that may be at play and could influence whether or not you develop varicose veins.
- Female hormones – Being female or taking medications that contain female hormones, such as birth control pills or hormone replacement therapy, increases your risk of developing varicose veins. Female hormones are thought to relax the veins, limiting their ability to send the blood up.
- Pregnancy – Pregnancy and childbirth, especially multiple births, also increase a woman’s risk.
The growing baby may put added pressure on the veins, but the good news here is that in non-severe cases, varicose veins that develop during pregnancy often go away about 3 months after the baby is born.
- Family history – Varicose veins has a strong genetic element. If either of your parents or grandparents suffered from varicose veins, there is a strong chance of developing varicose veins.
- Excess weight – Being overweight increases your risk of varicose veins. Increased body weight can strain the veins and limit the flow of blood back to the heart.
- Age – As we get older, our veins, along with their valves and walls, get older as well. The older you are, the more likely your veins are to deteriorate and develop varicose veins.
- Your job– People who work in sedentary jobs that involve standing or sitting for long periods of time are more likely to develop varicose veins.
- Injury to your leg– If you suffered an injury to your leg, your veins could be permanently damaged. This is another fairly common cause of varicose veins.
- Blood clots – Blood clots are more likely to lead to the development of varicose veins.
Is there anything I can do to prevent varicose veins?
As mentioned above, varicose veins develop for various reasons.
Some of these risk factors — such as family history, hormonal changes and age — are unavoidable. However, there are a number of things you can do to prevent or minimise the progression of varicose veins.
How to lower the risk of developing varicose veins:
- Maintain a healthy diet
- Get regular exercise
- Stay properly hydrated
- Keep your blood pressure healthy
These are all habits over which you have some control.
Tips for varicose veins relief
If you already have varicose veins, don’t just grin and bear it. There are a number of ways you can minimize or even eliminate the pain.
If you are pregnant, there are some alternative recommendations. Read our article on varicose veins in pregnancy for more information.
Here are our top tips:
1. Avoid prolonged periods of sitting or standing
Standing or sitting in one position for a long time makes it harder for your blood to travel up the leg against gravity, thus causing the pressure in your veins to rise. Being sedentary for too long can also cause blood to pool around your ankles, and your feet and calves can get swollen and achy.
Staying active will also help towards maintaining a healthy weight, which in turn, may prevent weight-related varicose veins.
If you do have a desk job or are otherwise required to stay in a sedentary position for a while, the next tip will be especially useful for you:
Moving around will decrease the venous pressure and improve your blood circulation. Recommended forms of exercise are walking, cycling and swimming. These are all low impact and improve the blood circulation.
However, if you’re stuck at a desk, you can do small exercises, such as:
- Bending your knees
- Peddling your feet
- Twisting and stretching your ankles
Regular exercise improves circulation in your legs and keeps the blood flowing at a good pace.
Try to elevate your legs as much as possible. Elevating your feet above the heart changes the direction of gravity. This results in better blood circulation and less ankle swelling.
Caution: If you think you may have or are at risk of getting blood clots, discuss with your doctor whether raising your legs above your heart is safe.
3. Live a healthy lifestyle
Varicose veins often develop due to factors that you can’t influence. This makes it even more important to try to keep a healthy lifestyle, to prevent more damage to your veins.
Eat a healthy balanced diet of complex carbohydrates, sufficient protein, and healthy fats. Avoid foods high in salt, and include foods high in fibre and potassium. Drink enough water throughout the day — proper hydration means healthy blood circulation.
4. Wear compression hosiery
Compression socks and stockings help to keep your vein valves in the right position. This makes it easier for the veins to function properly and prevents blood from pooling, and legs from swelling.
Since compression hosiery is a relatively easy and non-invasive form of treatment, physicians often recommend wearing them if any symptoms of varicose veins appear.
You will usually feel an improved blood circulation and varying degrees of pain relief immediately. You may also experience fewer night cramps after wearing compression socks during the day.
There are various types of compression levels depending on how damaged your veins are. You can read our article on compression hosiery for more information.
At our BirthLite stores, our expert fitters can guide you to find the compression level and fabric type that best suits your medical needs. Our range of options allows us to also accommodate for personal preferences, be it comfort, aesthetics, sensitive skin, sensory discomforts, or time/difficulty putting them on. Click here for information about our stores, or you can use our online compression hosiery ordering system.
Can varicose veins be dangerous?
Although varicose veins in themselves are not generally dangerous, painful varicose veins can get worse. As they worsen, you can develop new complications. Dangers to be aware of if you don’t treat varicose veins include:
Skin Ulcers – Varicose veins can cause swelling, which over time can result in skin changes. When this occurs, skin can become less likely to heal from even minor injuries. Reducing the swelling is a key treatment for these non-healing ulcers.
Skin Infection – When the tissues are stretched from swelling, this interferes with the body’s natural defence against infection. Lessening the swelling can help to prevent this. Furthermore, compression stockings can be used as part of the treatment to clear an infection.
Superficial vein thrombosis (SVT) This refers to a blood clot which forms in a superficial vein near the surface of the skin. Although not dangerous in itself, it can have serious ramifications if left untreated.
Deep Vein Thrombosis – Occasionally, people who develop blood clots will develop it in deeper veins. Deep vein thrombosis is a serious condition that requires immediate medical treatment. If you have a swollen varicose vein or an area of your leg that is painful, red and warm to the touch, be sure to seek medical attention immediately, to check for a DVT.
Varicose veins are an uncomfortable and sometimes unsightly condition, but not usually dangerous. Anyone can develop varicose veins, although pregnant women, especially after multiple pregnancies, are the most likely to develop some form of varicose veins. Living a healthy lifestyle with regular exercise as well as wearing appropriate compression hosiery or a girdle can all help prevent or ease the effects of varicose veins.
You can read more here about how compression hosiery can help with varicose veins and other conditions.