Varicose veins are visible twisted and swollen reddish-blueish veins, usually on your legs.
Even if you're not sure what they are, you've probably seen varicose veins on someone else or even noticed them on your own legs. They're a common condition, affecting about half of Americans over age 50. Although they typically aren't dangerous, there are still a few things you should keep in mind.
What are varicose veins?
Varicose veins are typically visible through the skin as reddish or blueish raised areas, usually twisted or snake-like in appearance, and are caused by an abnormality in blood flow.
Arteries pump oxygenated blood from the heart throughout your body, and veins then return it to the heart. To make sure the journey to your heart through your veins is not a two-way street, veins are equipped with valves that block the blood from flowing the wrong way. When these valves are weakened or damaged, the blood headed to your heart may flow back into the veins and pool. This pooled blood can cause bulging that then appears as varicose veins.
Varicose veins are most commonly found in the legs—due to the greater distance from your heart—but can also form in other parts of the body. Hemorrhoids, for example, are a type of varicose veins, and spider veins, which are similar to varicose veins but smaller and less problematic, can appear on the face and hands.
Since they're visible from the outside, varicose veins are relatively easy to diagnose, but they might be accompanied by certain side effects, such as:
- Ankle and leg swelling
- Achy, heavy feeling in your legs
- Restless legs
- Throbbing pain
- Muscle cramps
- Pain that gets worse after sitting or standing for a long time
- Itching around the varicose veins
- Bleeding from varicose veins
- Tenderness or pain in the vein
While some factors are out of your control—women and older adults are at a greater risk—others can be addressed through healthy lifestyle choices.
- Obesity: Being overweight puts more pressure on your veins, especially the ones in your legs, and can increase the likelihood of developing varicose veins.
- Pregnancy: A growing baby puts extra pressure on the mother's legs, increasing the risk of varicose veins. Pregnancy-related varicose veins typically go away within a year after delivery.
- Heredity: About half of the people who have varicose veins have a family history of them.
- Lack of Movement: Standing or sitting for long periods of time can increase your risk by preventing good circulation in your legs.
- Prior blood clots or leg trauma: A preexisting vein issue can raise your risk of weakened valves.
Health Issues and Treatments
While they are often just an aesthetic issue, varicose veins can also lead to more serious health complications or problems including ulcers, burst veins, and bleeding.
Another complication is blood clots in the veins near the surface of your skin, a condition called thrombophlebitis, or clots in deep veins, a potentially more dangerous condition called deep vein thrombosis.
Fortunately, there are many effective methods for treating varicose veins. Treatments typically focus on three main areas: improvement of appearance, symptom relief, and symptom prevention. Your doctor will recommend the best treatment or combination of treatments based on the severity of the condition.
Many preventive treatments are as simple as establishing a few healthy habits. Regular exercise and a healthy diet can help support weight loss, which reduces the pressure on the legs. Your doctor may also suggest wearing clothing that's not too tight and opting for supportive shoes rather than heels or dress shoes.
If you're already managing problems with circulation in your legs, compression socks can help support better blood flow. You can find them at your local Rite Aid Pharmacy, or for more serious conditions, your doctor may prescribe prescription-strength stockings.
In some cases, a doctor may recommend one of several non-surgical options, including sclerotherapy and laser treatment. In the most severe cases, surgical intervention may be necessary to remove varicose veins.
It's important to remember that varicose veins are a common part of aging. While they are typically only a cosmetic issue and therefore not cause for alarm, you should still check with your doctor or Rite Aid Pharmacist to make sure you're taking the necessary steps to protect your health.
By Joelle Klein
MedlinePlus, Varicose Veins
National Institute of Health, Varicose Veins
Mayo Clinic, Varicose Veins
American Heart Association's Circulation Journal, Varicose Veins
Wome's Health.gov, Varicose Veins and Spider Veins
Cleveland Clinic, Varicose Veins: More Than Just a Cosmetic Concern