What Are Varicose Veins?

Varicose veinsArteries bring blood from the heart to the limbs. Veins contain one way valves and take blood back to the heart. When there is obstruction of veins, or when prolonged pressure is placed on the veins, the valves stretch and do not close properly. This allows blood to travel back down the veins towards the feet. The veins in the legs that are near to the surface of the skin enlarge and result in  varicose veins. These can range from small dilated veins to big lumps on the legs.  Very small purple or blue veins in the skin of the legs are called thread veins, spider veins or dermal flares. These often occur alongside large varicose veins. Some people are only affected by thread veins. Both types of varicose veins are probably caused by the same factors. Varicose veins is a slowly progressive disease.  If left untreated this can lead to skin  damage or ulceration near the ankle.

Why Do They Occur?

Heredity is important in the development of varicose veins and thread veins. Up to 25% of the adult population have varicose veins and experience discomfort as a result. Many people know of other family members with the same problem. A recent study showed that where both parents had varicose veins there was an 80% chance of their children developing varices. Varicose veins occur as often in men as in women.

Environmental factors also play a large part in the development of varicose veins and thread veins. Prolonged standing – especially for workers such as nurses, sales assistants, flight attendants, waitresses and teachers causes varicose veins. Diet may also be a factor.  Our Western diet with high content of fat and refined sugar with low fiber content may contribute to the development of varicose veins.

Varicose veins may also occur more often with advancing age, but may appear at any time of life. Small varices are sometimes seen in school children.

Hormanal changes at puberty, pregnancy and the menopause also result in the devlopment of varicose and thread veins. As many as 70 – 80% of pregnant women develop varicose veins during the first trimester. Pregnancy causes an increase in hormone levels and blood volume which in turn causes veins to enlarge. Later in pregnancy, the enlarge uterus causes increased pressure on the veins in the pelvis.  60 – 70% of varicose veins due to pregnancy will disappear within a few weeks of delivery.

Little research has been done to investigate the role of the pill and hormone replacement therapy (HRT) in the development of varicose veins. These probably have no influence on them. One thing that smoking does NOT cause is varicose veins.

What are the Symptoms?

Varicose veins may cause feelings of fatigue, heaviness, aching, burning, throbbing, itching and cramps in the legs. Swelling of the ankle is a common problem. This may  appear after long hours of standing. Some people are very troubled by the aching that varicose veins produce. Even small thread veins can result in severe aching which prevents standing for any length of time.

What Can I do to Prevent Them?

Many of the things that seem to cause varicose veins are difficult to avoid such as a family history of Western way of life. Where possible standing still for long periods should be avoided. Walking is much better for the veins and helps the blood return to the heart from the legs. In occupations that require extended periods of standing then a few steps should be taken at regular short intervals to help circulation. Wearing support stockings may also reduce the likelihood of varicose veins. No creams or drugs are available to prevent varicose veins. The earlier varicose veins and thread veins are treated the better the long term and cosmetic outcome.


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