Many people who have varicose veins are concerned with the appearance of their legs. They may not want to wear clothing that bares the skin because their legs are unattractive. For some people however, varicose veins can be more than an aesthetic problem, and may indicate a more serious medical issue.

What are varicose veins?

Varicose veins form when veins that are close to the surface of the skin enlarge and create a prominent appearance. The veins may also twist, and often become blue or purple, with a rope-like appearance.

Each vein in your leg has a series of valves which work to keep your blood flowing in the right direction. When these one-way valves do not work properly, blood is allowed to flow back or pool in the vein. This can stretch the tissue—similar to an overfilled balloon—and create varicose veins.

Varicose veins are most common in the lower legs because pressure from gravity makes the blood harder to pump up the leg. For many people, varicose veins are simply a problem of appearance, often preventing a person from wearing clothing that shows the bare leg.

Varicose veins may also cause discomfort at the vein site, with symptoms such as pressure, heaviness, burning, throbbing or pain. These symptoms can be reduced by elevating the legs and with supportive pressure garments.

These are the most common side effects of varicose veins but, in some cases, varicose veins may also be a sign of a much bigger problem.

When varicose veins are more serious

In a person with varicose veins, a condition known as "phlebitis" may be more common and present a significant medical risk. Phlebitis is defined as inflammation of the veins. The inflammatory process may allow pooled blood inside of the veins to clot and form a thrombus. This is known as "superficial thrombophlebitis," which is a painful condition presenting as a hard, tender lump on the leg.

Thrombophlebitis is a risk factor for the more serious Deep Vein Thrombosis, where the clot extends from the superficial veins into the deep vein system. In severe cases, the clot (or thrombus) may break loose from the vein and travel to other parts of the body, where it may become stuck in the circulation to the lungs--this is called a "pulmonary embolus," a potentially life threatening condition that requires urgent diagnosis and treatment.

People with untreated varicose veins for many years can also develop damage to the skin on the lower part of the leg. Over time, this damage can deteriorate into a venous ulcer--a sore on the lower leg that refuses to heal up. Venous ulcers are a source of pain and suffering for many people, reducing mobility and quality of life. The vast majority of venous ulcers are preventable with early diagnosis and treatment of varicose veins.

People over 40 are at a higher risk for varicose veins. People who have been required to stand for long periods of time, are overweight or who have a family history are also more likely to get them. Being bed-ridden or spending a great deal of time sitting down may increase an individual's risk of developing phlebitis in the veins of the leg.

Prevention and treatment of varicose veins

There are some things you can do to prevent varicose veins from getting worse such as exercising on a regular basis, wearing support hose or socks and avoiding crossing your legs while in a seated position. Elevating your legs may also provide some relief.

Medical treatment to eliminate your varicose veins will not only improve the appearance of your legs and eliminate painful symptoms, it can also reduce the chance of you developing phlebitis or a dangerous blood clot.

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Varicose veins have traditionally been treated with surgery. Newer surgical procedures involving laser equipment have made this type of procedure quicker to perform and less invasive with less risk of bleeding and a quicker recovery time.

If varicose veins are causing pain or redness for you or your loved one, you should seek medical counsel. If you or your loved one have any symptoms of stroke, heart attack or difficulty breathing, you should seek emergency medical treatment.

This article was reviewed by Dr. Eddie Chaloner who works with Radiance Vein Clinic. He pioneered endovenous laser surgery for varicose veins in the UK, and teaches surgeons from all over the world in minimally invasive techniques for varicose vein surgery.