Varicose veins

Definition

Varicose veins are swollen, twisted, and enlarged veins that you can see under the skin. They are often red or blue in color. They most often appear in the legs, but can occur in other parts of the body.

Alternative Names

Varicosity

Causes

Normally, one-way valves in your leg veins keep blood moving up toward the heart. When the valves do not work properly, they allow blood to back up into the vein. The vein swells from the blood that collects there, which causes varicose veins.

Varicose veins are common, and affect more women than men. They do not cause problems for most people. However, if the flow of blood through veins becomes worse, problems such as leg swelling and pain, blood clots, and skin changes may be present.

Risk factors include:

  • Older age
  • Being female (hormonal changes from puberty, pregnancy, and menopause can lead to varicose veins, and taking birth control pills or hormone replacement can increase your risk)
  • Being born with defective valves
  • Obesity
  • Pregnancy
  • History of blood clots in your legs
  • Standing or sitting for long periods of time
  • Family history of varicose veins

Symptoms

Symptoms of varicose veins include:

  • Fullness, heaviness, aching, and sometimes pain in the legs
  • Visible, swollen veins
  • Smaller veins that you can see on the surface of the skin, called spider veins.
  • Thigh or calf cramps (often at night)
  • Mild swelling of feet or ankles
  • Itching

If flow of blood through the veins becomes worse, symptoms may include:

  • Leg swelling
  • Leg or calf pain after sitting or standing for long periods
  • Skin color changes of the legs or ankles
  • Dry, irritated, scaly skin that can crack easily
  • Skin sores (ulcers) that do not heal easily
  • Thickening and hardening of the skin in the legs and ankles (this can happen over time)

Exams and Tests

Your health care provider will examine your legs to look for swelling, changes in skin color, or sores. Your provider also may:

  • Check blood flow in the veins
  • Rule out other problems with the legs (such as a blood clot)

Treatment

Your provider may suggest that you take the following self-care steps to help manage varicose veins:

  • Wear compression stockings to decrease swelling. These stockings gently squeeze your legs to move blood up towards your heart.
  • DO NOT sit or stand for long periods. Even moving your legs slightly helps keep the blood flowing.
  • Raise your legs above your heart 3 or 4 times a day for 15 minutes at a time.
  • Care for wounds if you have any open sores or infections. Your provider can show you how.
  • Lose weight if you are overweight.
  • Get more exercise. This can help you keep off weight and help move blood up your legs. Walking or swimming are good options.
  • If you have dry or cracked skin on your legs, moisturizing may help. However, some skin care treatments can make the problem worse. Talk to your provider before using any lotions, creams, or antibiotic ointments. Your provider can recommend lotions that can help.

If only a small number of varicose veins are present, the following procedures may be used:

  • Sclerotherapy. Salt water or a chemical solution is injected into the vein. The vein hardens and disappears.
  • Phlebectomy. Small surgical cuts are made in the leg near the damaged vein. The vein is removed through one of the cuts.

If the varicose veins are larger, longer, or more widespread on the leg, your provider will suggest one of the following:

  • Procedures that can be done in a provider's office or clinic, such as using a laser or radiofrequency
  • Varicose vein stripping, used to remove or tie off a large vein in the leg called the superficial saphenous vein.

Outlook (Prognosis)

Varicose veins tend to get worse over time. Taking self-care steps can help relieve achiness and pain, keep varicose veins from getting worse, and prevent more serious problems.

When to Contact a Medical Professional

Call your provider if:

  • Varicose veins are painful.
  • They get worse or do not improve with self-care, such as by wearing compression stockings or avoiding standing or sitting for too long.
  • You have a sudden increase in pain or swelling, fever, redness of the leg, or leg sores.
  • You develop leg sores that do not heal.

References

Freischlag JA, Heller JA. Venous disease. In: Townsend CM Jr, Beauchamp RD, Evers BM, Mattox KL, eds. Sabiston Textbook of Surgery. 20th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2017:chap 64.

Iafrati MD, O'Donnell TF. Varicose veins: Surgical treatment. In: Cronenwett JL, Johnston W, eds. Rutherford's Vascular Surgery. 8th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2014:chap 57.

Kabnick LS, Sadek M. Varicose veins: endovenous ablation and sclerotherapy. In: Cronenwett JL, Johnston KW, eds. Rutherford's Vascular Surgery. 8th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2014:chap 58.


Review Date: 6/6/2016
Reviewed By: Deepak Sudheendra, MD, RPVI, Assistant Professor of Interventional Radiology & Surgery at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine, with an expertise in Vascular Interventional Radiology & Surgical Critical Care, Philadelphia, PA. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.
The information provided herein should not be used during any medical emergency or for the diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition. A licensed medical professional should be consulted for diagnosis and treatment of any and all medical conditions. Call 911 for all medical emergencies. Links to other sites are provided for information only -- they do not constitute endorsements of those other sites. © 1997- A.D.A.M., Inc. Any duplication or distribution of the information contained herein is strictly prohibited.
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