What are Varicose Veins?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Varicose veins are blood vessels that have become enlarged. They classically appear in the extremities — particularly the legs — and over time, they become twisted and raised, making them clearly visible on the calves and feet. A variation, spider veins, is caused through the same process.

Varicose veins are enlarged blood vessels that bulge out of the skin.
Varicose veins are enlarged blood vessels that bulge out of the skin.

This condition appears most commonly in the lower legs because this area is ideally suited to their formation. As blood circulates through the body, the veins in the lower legs must work especially hard to push blood up to the heart, since the blood must contend with gravity. Over time, the valves in the veins become loose, allowing blood to pool in the veins and causing them to stretch. As this happens, the veins lose their elasticity, becoming swollen and lumpy.

Compression garments may be used to treat varicose veins.
Compression garments may be used to treat varicose veins.

There are no immediate medical problems associated with varicose veins. People usually choose to treat them because the excessively dilated veins may feel uncomfortable and look unsightly. In some cases, people may experience pain, itchiness, or throbbing in their lower extremities, and occasionally, ulcerous sores may form. Sores require medical attention, as they indicate an underlying medical problem.

Spider veins are most common in the lower legs and ankles.
Spider veins are most common in the lower legs and ankles.

People can reduce the risk of developing vein problems by staying active, wearing loose clothing, and ensuring that they do not stand or sit for extended periods. People who are overweight also appear to be at increased risk of developing this problem, as are pregnant women. Periodically elevating the legs in a seated position can also help the blood circulate more easily, keeping the valves in the veins in good shape.

Varicose veins may cause itchiness in the lower extremities.
Varicose veins may cause itchiness in the lower extremities.

Once varicose veins start to appear, there are a number of treatment options. Some people choose to do nothing at all, accepting this problem as part of the aging process. Others may choose to wear compression garments, which can help, and to engage in exercise. They can also be treated with procedures like a sclerotherapy injection, in which a substance is injected into the veins to tighten and close them. Offending veins can also be removed in vein stripping, or closed off with lasers and other surgical treatments.

A swollen vein may require medical treatment.
A swollen vein may require medical treatment.

Because this condition is considered unsightly in many cultures, there are a variety of products on the market which claim to eliminate it. People should think carefully before using such products, as they may be useless at best or potentially dangerous. If varicose veins are an issue, a medical professional can suggest treatment options, including forms of alternative medicine which may be effective.

Those who are overweight are at increased risk of developing varicose veins.
Those who are overweight are at increased risk of developing varicose veins.
Pregnant women may be at higher risk of developing varicose veins.
Pregnant women may be at higher risk of developing varicose veins.
Instead of seeking treatment, some accept varicose veins as a natural part of the aging process.
Instead of seeking treatment, some accept varicose veins as a natural part of the aging process.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments

staceybeck01

Thanks for all the great advice. I would love to get varicose veins treatment and this is really good to know.

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