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Varicose veins are enlarged, bulging blue-purplish veins underneath the surface of the skin. They usually form on the thighs, calves, or the inside of the legs near the ankles and feet. Varicose veins are a common health condition and affect more women than men. Varicose veins can occur without causing any health problems and remain a cosmetic issue. However, if not treated properly, varicose veins can develop into blood clots or other serious vascular problems. Keep reading to find out everything you need to know about varicose veins.
Varicose veins are abnormally enlarged, swollen, and twisted veins that often appear as bulging, blue blood vessels beneath the skin. They can occur anywhere in the body, but are most commonly found in the lower legs. Varicose veins affect almost twice as many women as men in fact, most common in pregnant women, elderly, and people who sit or stand for long periods of time.
Spider veins are the milder form of varicose veins, in which dilated blood vessels are visible through the skin without bulging. They are typically less than 1mm in diameter, purplish in colour, and look like branches or a spider web right below the skin surface. They are usually asymptomatic and painless without leg swelling.
Varicose veins are a common medical condition that may lead to discomfort and serious complications if not treated properly. Some patients may develop emotional distress due to the unattractive features of varicose veins.
Veins are blood vessels that carry blood back to the heart from the body. Veins contain one-way valves that keep blood flowing forward. Normally, these valves close to prevent blood from flowing backward, however, varicose veins develop when these small valves fail to function properly. When these valves fail, blood flows back down the vein, causing blood to build up. The accumulation of blood raises the blood pressure in the vein and causes it to stretch out, resulting in the visible and palpable swollen, twisted veins through the skin.
Veins of the lower limbs are furthest away from the heart, hence venous blood from legs travel a long distance against gravity to return to the heart. Calves and other leg muscles relax and contract as you walk or run. These muscle contractions act as pumps in the lower leg, and elastic vein walls and proper venous valves help blood return to the heart. If these valves are weak or damaged, blood may flow backward and collect in the vein. As a result, legs’ veins are the most common site of varicose veins as compared to other parts of the body.
Apart from the above-mentioned causes of varicose veins, there are several other risk factors that contribute to a higher risk of varicose veins, including:
Varicose veins may not be visible until the veins have stretched, but they may accompany other symptoms. If you develop such symptoms, your legs can be extremely tired, heavy, or achy. After sitting or standing for an extended period of time, these symptoms may worsen.
These are common signs and symptoms caused by varicose veins:
Changes in hormone levels have an influence on the above symptoms. Thus, you may experience more symptoms at certain times of your menstrual cycle, during pregnancy, or during menopause.
Varicose veins can cause complications as normal blood flows are disturbed. Although complications are usually rare in the early stage, complications of varicose veins may develop years later.
Some complications of varicose veins include:
If left untreated, varicose veins may develop into vascular diseases that threaten one’s health, such as thrombosis (formation of blood clots in blood vessels) or chronic venous insufficiency.
When varicose veins last for a long time, venous pressure can further weaken valves’ functions. This develops into chronic venous insufficiency. Varicose veins can be divided into multiple stages:
Varicose veins are diagnosed mainly by their appearance. Your doctor will examine your legs and look for bulging veins while you are standing. In addition to the clinical signs and symptoms, diagnosis of varicose veins can be made by duplex ultrasound. A duplex ultrasound scan can be taken to listen to the blood flow, and hence, detect any blockage caused by blood clots and to locate any damaged valves.
If your varicose veins are serious, showing severe pain, ulcers or other complications, your doctor may refer you to a vascular specialist.
Varicose veins are rarely a serious condition and treatment may not be necessary sometimes. Medical treatments are usually unnecessary for stage 1&2 varicose veins. Physicians may recommend the following treatments for relieving symptoms.
If lifestyle changes and varicose veins compression stockings don’t help your symptoms, your physician may recommend some advanced measures to treat severe varicose veins.
Varicose vein creams, lotions and other products are very common in the market. You should know these creams will not cure varicose veins; instead, they contain ingredients that can minimize symptoms of varicose veins, namely inflammation, swelling, itching and help soothe the skin.
There are many simple ways to reduce the risk of developing varicose veins or getting additional ones. They apply similar approaches to varicose veins treatments.
Mild varicose veins and spider veins may fade away over time, especially if they are caused by pregnancy or certain medications. Elevating the legs and engaging in regular exercise may help alleviate the signs and symptoms of varicose veins.
Improve your blood circulation by exercising regularly, elevating your legs, avoiding standing or sitting for a long period of time, maintaining a healthy weight, and avoiding wearing high heels. These can prevent new varicose veins and spider veins development but cannot remove existing ones.
Varicose veins can be treated non-surgically by wearing varicose veins compression stockings, elevating the legs, and engaging in regular exercises. Varicose veins can be surgically removed by sclerotherapy (the most common method), endothermal ablation, vein ligation, or stripping.
Varicose vein creams are applied to the skin to relieve varicose veins symptoms, but they do not address the underlying issue of venous insufficiency, thus unable to cure varicose veins.
This article was medically reviewed by Dr. Gordon Chak Man Cheung from the London Medical Clinic, Central, Hong Kong. Dr. Cheung is a General Practitioner in HK who received his medical degree from King’s College London, University of London. Before completing his General Practice specialist training in UK, Dr. Cheung had worked in various hospitals in London and South East England in Cardiology, Endocrinology, Oncology, Paediatrics, Obstetrics and Gynaecology. He holds numerous postgraduate medical qualifications including Memberships to the Royal Colleges of Physicians in UK and to the Royal College of General Practitioners, Diploma of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, Child Health as well as Clinical Dermatology.
This article was independently written by Healthy Matters. It is informative only and not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be relied upon for specific medical advice.
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