If you have ropy, blue blood vessels in your legs, you may think that they’re unsightly but don't cause any overt symptoms. Yet for some people, varicose veins can cause skin damage and, even worse, lead to dangerous blood clots.
They’re incredibly common: Varicose veins affect about one in four U.S. adults, or about 22 million women and 11 million men between ages 40 and 80.
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Your leg veins face an uphill battle as they carry blood from your toes to your heart. Small flaps, or valves, within these vessels prevent blood from getting backed up on this journey, and the pumping action of your leg muscles helps push the blood along.
But if these valves weaken, blood can pool — primarily in the veins of your legs — increasing pressure in the veins. As a result of this increased pressure, your body tries to widen the veins to compensate, causing them to bulge and thicken, and leading to the characteristic twisted appearance of varicose veins.
To help you learn the facts about these enlarged veins, we've set the record straight on 10 sometimes confusing pieces of information, including who gets varicose veins and why, health problems they can cause, and treatment options.
Myth 1: Varicose Veins Are Only a Cosmetic Issue
“A lot of people are told by primary care doctors or others that varicose veins are a cosmetic issue only, when oftentimes they can be much more than that,” saysKathleen D. Gibson, MD, a vascular surgeon practicing in Bellevue, Washington.
“A significant percentage of patients with varicose veins will eventually develop symptoms,” says Pablo Sung Yup Kim, MD, assistant professor of surgery at Mount Sinai's Icahn School of Medicine in New York City. “The most common include dull achiness, heaviness, throbbing, cramping, and swelling of the legs.” Other symptoms include severe dryness and itchiness of the skin near varicose veins. People with varicose veins are also at an increased risk for a dangerous type of blood clot known as deep vein thrombosis.
Other not-so-common signs and symptoms, found in less than 10 percent of patients, include bleeding, skin discoloration, skin thickening, and ulcer formation — all due to varicose veins, says Kim. Unfortunately, once you have skin damage, it’s usually permanent.
“It’s very important to seek medical advice if you have varicose veins and experience symptoms — before changes in the skin are irreversible,” he says.
Myth 2: Varicose Veins Are an Inevitable Sign of Aging
Aging definitely worsens varicose veins, though not everyone gets them. “It's a degenerative process that gets worse and more prominent as we age,” says Dr. Gibson. But young people can get varicose veins, too. While the average age of patients treated in Gibson’s practice is 52, she and her colleagues have treated patients as young as 13.
If you've got varicose veins, it may run in your family. “The cause of varicose veins is primarily genetic,” Gibson explains.
Changes in hormone levels also come into play as a risk factor for varicose veins. “Your risk can be made worse, especially by pregnancy,” she adds.
Myth 3: Varicose Veins Are Strictly a Women’s Issue
While varicose veins are more common in women, men get them, too. About one-quarter of adult women have some visible varicose veins, compared to 10 to 15 percent of men.
Steve Hahn, 51, of Kirkland, Washington, first noticed in his twenties that he had varicose veins in his left leg after he sprained his ankle playing basketball. When he injured his knee about 10 years ago, he noticed that the varicose veins had become more extensive.
“After about five years of thinking about it, I finally had them treated,” he says. “Both of my legs felt very heavy all of the time at this point, as opposed to just after walking a golf course or playing tennis or basketball.”
After treatment, Hahn says, “I feel like I have new legs.” The heaviness is gone, as is the ankle swelling, which he didn't know was related to the varicose veins. And as a side benefit, he adds, he looks better in shorts.
Myth 4: Running Can Cause Varicose Veins
Exercise — including running — is usually a good thing for your veins. “Exercise is always good for the circulation,” Kim says. “Walking or running can lead to more calf-muscle pumping and more blood returning to the heart.”
“Being a runner doesn’t cause varicose veins,” adds Gibson, though there's controversy about whether exercise makes them worse or not.” Compression stockings can help prevent blood from pooling in your lower legs during exercise. “For patients who haven't had their varicose veins treated and are running, I recommend compression. When you’re done running and are cooling off, elevate your legs,” she says.
Myth 5: Varicose Veins Are Always Visible
While the varicose veins you notice are right at the surface of the skin, they occur deeper in the body, too, where you can't see them. “It really depends on the makeup of the leg,” Gibson says. “If you've got a lot of fatty tissue between the muscle and the skin, you may not see them. Sometimes surface veins are the tip of the iceberg and there's a lot going on underneath.”
Myth 6: Standing on the Job Causes Varicose Veins
If you have a job that requires you to be on your feet a lot — as a teacher or flight attendant, for example — you may be more bothered by varicose veins. But the jury's still out on whether prolonged standing actually causes varicose veins. “People tend to notice their varicose vein symptoms more when they’re standing or sitting,” Gibson explains.
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Myth 7: Making Lifestyle Changes Won't Help
Your lifestyle does matter, because obesity can worsen varicose veins, and getting down to a healthy weight can help ease symptoms. Becoming more physically active is also helpful. “Wearing compression stockings, doing calf-strengthening exercises, and elevating your legs can all improve or prevent varicose veins,” saysAndrew F. Alexis, MD, MPH, chairman of the dermatology department at Mount Sinai St. Luke's and Mount Sinai Roosevelt in New York City.
Myth 8: Surgery Is Your Only Treatment Option
The only treatment available for varicose veins used to be a type of surgery called stripping, in which the vein is surgically removed from the body. That’s no longer the case. While this procedure is still the most commonly used varicose vein treatment worldwide, according to Gibson, minimally invasive procedures that don't leave scars have become much more popular in the United States.
Endothermal ablation, for example, involves using a needle to deliver heat to your vein, causing it to close and no longer function. While the procedure doesn't leave a scar, it can be painful, and you may have to undergo sedation before being treated. “You have to have a series of injections along the vein to numb it up; otherwise, you wouldn't be able to tolerate the heat,” Gibson explains. You may need to take a day off from work to recover, as well as a few days off from the gym.
Some medications, called sclerosing agents, close a vein by causing irritation. Others are adhesives that seal a vein shut and don’t require the area to be numbed. Gibson and her colleagues have helped develop some of the new technologies and products used in treating varicose veins, including adhesives.
Milder varicose veins can be treated by dermatologists with non-invasive approaches, such as laser therapy and sclerotherapy, says Dr. Alexis. “For more severe cases where symptoms may be involved, seeing a vascular surgeon for surgical treatment options is advised.”
Although treatment for varicose veins means losing some veins, you have plenty of others in your body that can take up the slack, explains Gibson. “The majority of the blood flow in veins in the leg is not on the surface at all; it's in the deep veins within the muscle,” she says. “Those deep veins … are easily able to take over for any veins that we remove on the surface.”
Myth 9: Recovery After Varicose Vein Treatments Is Difficult
Newer treatments have quicker recovery times. “These procedures can be performed in an office within 20 to 30 minutes with no recovery time. Patients can usually return to work or daily activities on the same day,” Kim says.
Myth 10: Varicose Veins Can Be Cured
Treatments are effective, but they aren't a cure, Gibson says. Sometimes, varicose veins can make a repeat appearance after treatment. “What I tell my patients is it's kind of like weeding a garden,” she says. “We clear them all out, but that doesn't mean there's never going to be another dandelion popping out.”