Varicose veins are enlarged, rope-like, or twisted blood vessels near the skin surface of the legs. The veins can be unsightly and uncomfortable, and they can also induce fatigue, aching, and scaling along the legs. In severe cases varicose veins may cause swollen ankles, itching calves, and leg pain.
Less troubling are sunburst patches of finer veins, called spider veins, that can appear on the skin of the legs, ankles, or face. Spider veins don’t usually cause pain or interfere with circulation, though sometimes they can ache or burn.
Symptoms of Varicose Veins
- Enlarged, swollen purple or blue veins, usually in the back of the calf and/or along the inner side of the leg.
- Heavy, aching, tired feeling in the legs, accompanied by occasional pain ranging from a dull throb to a burning sensation.
- Brownish gray discoloration, scaling, or itching above the affected veins, particularly around the ankles (advanced cases).
What Causes Varicose Veins?
As part of the circulatory system, leg veins, along with leg muscles, work to send blood back toward the heart, and are equipped with tiny valves to keep the force of gravity from pulling blood back toward the feet. When the valves weaken and malfunction, the blood can’t move normally, and varicose veins may result.
No one is sure exactly what causes varicose veins to develop in some people, but hereditary and, apparently, hormonal factors are at work: varicose veins run in families, and of the more than 40 million Americans affected with varicose veins, women outnumber men four to one.
Prolonged standing or inactivity can certainly play a role in people genetically inclined to develop varicose veins. Strain in the abdominal region—from repeated heavy lifting, pregnancy, or constipation—can also be a cause. (During pregnancy, increasing hormone levels may also cause veins in the legs to weaken, contributing to varicose veins.) Age is also a factor. As the skin ages, its connective fibers become less elastic and cannot support veins as firmly.
What If You Do Nothing?
Varicose veins are usually benign and more of a cosmetic than a medical concern. Without treatment, though, the veins may worsen with time (unless they are associated with pregnancy, in which case they may disappear after the birth). If you have a severe case, especially one that involves leg sores, contact your physician.
Spider veins in the legs may fade eventually on their own. If they are too unsightly, you can get medical treatment.
Home Remedies for Varicose Veins
- Support your legs. Special support stockings, available at surgical supply stores, can improve circulation (but won’t cure your condition). These stockings, which can be custom fitted, are put on in the morning before your feet touch the floor and taken off before you go to bed.You can also get special elastic bands that fasten with Velcro and allow you to apply pressure to specific parts of the leg. These also may be easier to put on than compression stockings.
- Elevate your legs. When you get a chance, lie down for 15 minutes with your legs on a pillow, elevated above your heart. Or rest your feet on a stool if you're sitting down.
If you’re prone to developing varicose veins, you may be able to prevent them, minimize their occurrence, or lessen discomfort from them.
- Walk regularly. Walking improves overall circulation, without increasing pressure on the legs. However, if you have varicose veins already, you should probably avoid strenuous running, jumping, aerobic dance, or training with heavy weights, since very vigorous or high-impact activity can cause pain and/or swelling in the legs.
- Avoid prolonged standing or sitting. This will keep blood from pooling in your legs. Get up periodically and walk around.
- Perform simple heel rises. These will get the calf muscle pumping blood back to the heart. Stand flat-footed, then rise up onto the balls of your feet, hold that position momentarily, then go back to the floor. Repeat 10 to 20 times.
- Don’t cross your legs. Crossing your legs puts pressure on the leg veins.
- Don’t wear tight clothing. This includes tight shoes, panty hose, girdles, and garter belts—all of which can compress and restrict the veins around the legs.
- Maintain a healthy weight for your age and height. Weight gain may cause new varicose veins to appear.
- Avoid constipation. Straining at stool can be bad for varicose veins. Drink plenty of fluids and increase the amount of fiber in your diet; start by eating a few prunes every day.
Beyond Home Remedies: When To Call Your Doctor
Contact your physician if you develop any redness or tenderness, or if you notice a distinct swelling along the length of a varicose vein in your leg. You may have superficial phlebitis, a vein inflammation. Contact your physician if you develop a sore on your leg related to a varicosity. If you are concerned about the appearance of varicose veins, talk to your doctor while they are still in the early stages.
What Your Doctor Will Do
Most people can control varicose veins without surgical treatment, and your doctor may first suggest trying compression stockings or elastic bands. But if varicose veins are causing severe pain, complications, or emotional distress, they can be surgically removed safely and permanently. Blood then reroutes itself through veins that lie deeper in the skin.
One surgical method, whereby distended veins are cut out or tied off, is called stripping. A second option, sclerotherapy, calls for the injection of a solution that hardens the affected veins and blocks the blood flow. The blocked veins form a kind of scar tissue and are eventually absorbed, usually months later. Sclerotherapy is best for treating smaller veins, including spider veins. Laser therapy can also be used to break down smaller veins.
Your doctor will examine you to determine if you are a suitable candidate for surgery, and which procedure would work best for you.
The Complete Home Wellness Handbook
John Edward Swartzberg, M.D., F.A.C.P., Sheldon Margen, M.D., and the editors of the UC Berkeley Wellness Letter
Updated by Remedy Health Media