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What are Varicose Veins?

The veins in your body are an important part of your circulatory system. Veins carry blood back to the heart. When veins begin to weaken, blood can collect in the veins. When this happens, you may develop a condition called varicose [VAR-i-kohs] veins. The condition is also called varicoses [var-i-KOH-sees] or varicosities [var-i-KOS-i-tees].

Varicose veins are twisted, enlarged veins near the surface of the skin. They most commonly occur in the legs and ankles. The veins appear blue or purple in color. They sometimes can cause pain and discomfort. In severe cases, varicose veins may cause swelling that can cause serious skin and tissue problems. These problems include ulcers and sores.

In rare cases, varicose veins can cause a condition called deep vein thrombosis (DVT) a condition in which blood clots form in the leg’s veins. Symptoms of blood clots include pain, swelling, and redness of the leg. Blood clots require immediate care. If a piece of the blood clot breaks off, it can travel to the lungs (pulmonary embolism). A blood clot in the lung can be very dangerous, even fatal. If you have symptoms of a blood clot, call your healthcare provider immediately.

Symptoms

The most common symptom of varicose veins are veins that appear twisted and bulging. They may look like spider webs. Other symptoms of varicose veins may include:

  • Pain
  • Achy or heavy feeling in your legs
  • Swelling in your lower legs
  • Muscle cramping
  • Itching

When to See a Doctor

See your doctor if you have symptoms of varicose veins. Though varicose veins are generally benign, they could signal an underlying circulatory problem.

Causes

Causes of varicose veins can include:

  • Age. As you get older, your veins may lose elasticity, causing them to become weak.
  • Pregnancy. Pregnancy increases the volume of blood to a woman’s body. As her pregnancy progresses, there is more pressure on the veins in her legs, causing the veins to become enlarged. Changes in hormones during pregnancy may also play a role.

In some cases, the cause of varicose veins is unknown.

Diagnosis and Tests

Varicose veins are often diagnosed based on a physical exam. During this exam, your doctor will look at your legs while you are sitting or standing. He or she may ask you about your symptoms and any pain you may be experiencing. Other tests may include:

  • Duplex Ultrasound. This imaging test will check blood flow to your veins and look for blood clots.
  • Angiogram. This procedure will help your doctor get a more detailed look at the blood through your veins. During this procedure, a dye is injected into your veins. The dye outlines your veins on x-ray images.

Treatments

If your varicose veins cause few symptoms, your doctor may suggest making some simple lifestyle changes. These lifestyle changes include the following:

  • Avoid sitting or standing for long periods of time
  • Exercise regularly
  • Lose weight
  • Avoid wearing tight clothing

If your varicose veins are causing pain and other bothersome symptoms, treatment options may include:

  • Leg elevation. You will be instructed to elevate your feet several times a day for about 15 minutes at a time.
  • Compression stockings. These stockings apply gentle pressure to keep blood flowing in the legs.
  • Sclerotherapy [skler-uh-THER-uh-pee]. During this procedure, a liquid chemical is injected into the vein to close off the varicose vein. Sclerotherapy is typically done every four to six weeks.
  • Microsclerotherapy. This procedure treats very small varicose veins. During this procedure, a small about of liquid chemical is injected to close off the varicose vein.
  • Laser Surgery. During this procedure, light energy from a laser is applied to the vein causing it to fade.
  • Surgical removal of the varicose veins.

Prevention

Not all varicose veins can be prevented. There are some steps you can take to reduce your chances of developing varicose veins.

  • Exercise regularly
  • Avoid sitting or standing for long periods of time
  • Elevate your legs to improve circulation
  • Avoid wearing high heels for long periods of time
  • Maintain a healthy weight

Support and Resources

Varicose veins are twisted, enlarged veins near the surface of the skin. They most commonly occur in the legs and ankles. Varicose veins are generally benign. However, if they cause pain and swelling, varicose veins could also signal an underlying circulatory problem. Learn more about varicose veins.

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