Varicose veins are swollen and enlarged veins. They are often blue or dark purple and lumpy, bulging, and twisted in appearance. They occur on the legs and feet.
Not all varicose veins bulge to the surface; sometimes they can be invisible and buried deep in the body. Therefore, some people experience pain and discomfort for a long time before discovering the cause.
Almost anyone can have varicose veins, and according to the Society for Vascular Surgery, they affect around 35 percent of people in America.
Sometimes, varicose veins cause no symptoms, while other times, they produce a range of symptoms. Common symptoms include:
- aching and uncomfortable legs
- swollen feet and ankles
- burning or throbbing
- muscle cramps, particularly at night
- itchy skin over the affected area
- skin discoloration
- heaviness or fatigue in the legs
Symptoms tend to be worse during warm weather, late in the day, or when a person has been standing up for extended periods.
There are varying degrees of pain associated with varicose veins, and some people experience severe symptoms.
One condition that can cause pain is known as phlebitis, which occurs when varicose veins become inflamed and form blood clots. Signs that a person may have phlebitis include:
If a vein bursts, blood can pool around the affected area and pressure and toxins may build up. Sometimes an ulcer may develop, or a person’s skin may tear as a result of a varicose vein, which can be extremely painful.
Varicose veins can also cause problems elsewhere in the body — specifically the lymphatic system.
The lymphatic system is a network of vessels that help transport and remove waste products and toxins. It plays a major role in immune system function.
Sometimes, varicose veins can damage the lymphatic system and lead to a condition called lymphedema, which causes swelling, often in the feet and toes.
Other people may develop venous stasis dermatitis, where the skin becomes leathery and ruddy-brown. Sometimes clear-yellow fluid weeps through the skin.
Varicose veins can
Dermatitis can cause bleeding, skin ulcers, or sores that can be painful and become infected if scratched or irritated.
Varicose veins can also lead to inflammation and the formation of a clot in the vein. Often this clot will be close to the surface of the skin in a condition known as superficial thrombophlebitis.
This can cause pain and lead to other problems in the affected area.
Unfortunately, there is little evidence that people can prevent varicose veins from occurring, but they can make various lifestyle changes that may help lessen symptoms and possibly prevent varicose veins from worsening.
Prevention and symptom relief methods include:
- avoiding standing or sitting for extended periods
- trying to move around at least every 30 minutes
- raising the affected area raised above the level of the heart when sitting, resting, or sleeping
- doing regular exercise to improve circulation
- losing weight if overweight
- avoiding tight-fitting clothes, particularly those that are tight around the waist, groin, and legs
- avoiding wearing high-heeled shoes for long periods
Varicose veins do not always require treatment. However, if they are causing pain, there are various treatment options available.
If symptoms are minimal to mild, the doctor will likely advise the person to try the prevention methods mentioned above first to see if they help reduce pain and discomfort.
If they do not help, then a doctor might recommend the following treatment methods:
In the first instance, a doctor will likely suggest compression stockings combined with elevating the legs and exercising regularly. A person may need to wear the stockings for around 6 months before they feel the full effect.
Compression stockings compress the leg tissue around the veins to prevent blood from pooling. They are designed to help reduce associated aching and swelling.
Ablation uses heat to seal the affected veins either by a laser or radiofrequency.
Ablation treatment is often administered in the doctor’s office and takes around 20 minutes. The doctor uses a local anesthetic to numb the affected area, so the procedure is painless. Once the ablation is complete, the doctor will wrap the area in a compression bandage.
This procedure involves injecting a foam called sclerosant into a varicose vein. The foam causes the vein to spasm, scar, and clot, which will then close the vein off.
This type of clot is not dangerous and, over time, the varicose vein will disappear.
Some people may require surgery, which can include ligation — where the veins are tied to stop the blood pooling — or stripping, where a surgeon removes the vein.
Doctors do not consider varicose veins to be a serious condition, and people who have them without any discomfort do not need to see a doctor.
However, if they are causing pain, discomfort, or irritation — particularly at night — then people should seek medical treatment.
It is worth remembering that because varicose veins are not always visible, anyone who experiences aching, swelling, or fatigue should still see their doctor for evaluation.