Although considered to be a feature of age, varicose veins can afflict us all at some point or another. We’ll look at what causes them, what you can do about symptoms and what treatments exist to mitigate this uncomfortable but unfortunately very common problem.
Prominent and painful bulging veins, called varicose veins, are a problem that many Americans endure; 18% of men and 25% of women will suffer from this problem at some point in their lives. It’s unsightly, it’s painful and it’s seen as a sign of advanced age. Although that’s not true, it’s certainly one of many reasons that sufferers don’t talk about it or seek help for the condition. But they should, because the problem is widespread and they will be accepted and helped by people who understand. Because the condition is so common, it is well understood and the treatments have progressed and evolved so that nobody now needs to suffer in silence.
What Are Varicose Veins?
Varicose veins are veins which have become enlarged and convoluted. They are usually in the legs, since they are the lowest extremity of the body,. The veins bulge out and their path through the leg becomes less streamlined and smooth and becomes more contorted and twisted under the skin. It is uncomfortable and sometimes very painful.
To understand why this happens, you need to know how veins work. In your veins blood needs to flow in only one direction for the oxygen it contains to reach all over your body. It’s a closed system, like the pipes heating your home, and it needs to flow. To avoid what doctors call reflux (which is a posh way of saying the blood goes back the way it came) the veins have valves along their length, which open as blood passes in the right direction, and then close to stop it going back again.
The reason for this is that your blood in your legs is fighting gravity, it’s flowing down there but then pushing back uphill on it’s way back to your heart. The valves give it handholds as it goes. If the valves fail or become weakened and don’t close properly then the blood starts to back up, causing the vein to swell and contort.
You may have heard horror stories from friends and relatives about their long ago treatment for varicose veins, but modern treatments have advanced massively in the last few years. As little as ten years ago the only option was an unpleasant and invasive surgery to remove the troublesome vein. If you have severe varicose veins then they can be very painful, and this is made worse by standing for long periods which most of us can’t avoid. This meant that patients and doctors alike often sought urgent surgery and it was seen as the only way to go.
But we’ve moved on and evolved the treatments. These days, invasive and radical surgery is deferred as a last resort in favour of less radical and more effective treatments. Modern sclerotherapy consists of injecting medicines into the vein to shrink enlarged blood vessels, and other high tech treatments involve blasting the vessels with radio waves or lasers (grandly called “laser ablation”) to get the same effect. It’s obviously much better for the long-term health of the patient to reduce the swelling and allow the vein to heal rather than remove it. If you didn’t need a vein there you wouldn’t have one, so it’s a better idea to keep it!
Compression socks play a vital role in both prevention and treatment. They compress the veins and prevent unwanted expansion and yet they allow blood to flow. This helps prevent the problem getting worse and gives your body time to heal naturally.
Finally, in recent years, the benefits of walking and regular exercise are once again being promoted as an important method of accelerating healing and preventing varicose veins. Keeping the blood moving can only help the situation, and leg immobility for long periods is well known to cause varicose veins and deep vein thrombosis (DVT).
So what can you do to prevent varicose veins forming or assist with your recovery if you already have them?
First and foremost, avoid standing for long periods of time. If you must stand all day, consider the use of compression socks or stockings to make sure that gravity doesn’t win and your blood keeps moving naturally through your legs.
Get regular exercise for your legs, preferably something such as walking, running, cycling or swimming. This stimulates your circulation and improves blood flow and vein health. But as well as exercise, you must also do the opposite – you must rest. Raise your legs level with or above your heart by putting your feet up daily while you watch TV or use your laptop. This reduces the strain on your circulation for a while and reduces strain on the valves in your veins too.
If you are carrying extra weight, then reducing that will help lower the strain on your legs and your circulation. Obviously weight reduction is a good thing for your heart and your legs anyway, and any exercise you do will help you with your weight too. In addition, smoking is a bad habit and the effects on circulation and extremities are well known too.
If you are female, avoid tight clothes that can pinch your veins at the groin, knee or ankle. Consider wearing something less restrictive that can allow your blood to flow. Another fashion statement that can cause leg vein issues are high heels; wear flat shoes at least some of the time. Also women should avoid high strength estrogen birth control pills where possible as these can affect circulation adversely. And of course if you are pregnant, you are even more susceptible to vein conditions, so consider some compression clothing support then too.
And finally, the 1950s etiquette gurus had it right; don’t sit with your legs crossed as this restricts blood flow, if you must cross something, make it your ankles. Looks nicer too!