What you need to know about varicose veins

What you need to know about varicose veins

Varicose veins can show up in teenagers, and they become much more common as you age. By age 40, about 40% of women have them. By age 70, 70% will. And about 40% of men will eventually have them, too.

But who gets varicose veins, are they dangerous and how do you treat them? Dr. Peter Bartzen, a surgeon with Aurora Health Care, answers your questions.

Q: What are varicose veins?

Varicose veins are lumpy, red or blue swollen veins close to the surface of the skin. They range in size from less than a millimeter to more than a centimeter in diameter.

The smaller ones are sometimes called spider veins. They usually aren’t a serious health problem. But they can itch, burn and feel uncomfortable.

Bigger varicose veins sometimes cause the skin to bulge. You might see them on the backs of your calves or other places on the legs, but they can also show up in other places.

Q: Why do people get varicose veins?

Veins have tiny valves that keep the blood from flowing the wrong way. When the valves get weak, blood can collect in the veins. This can also happen if the vein walls are weak. The more blood that collects, the bigger the varicose veins you’ll have.

Along with aging, genetics plays a big role in who gets varicose veins. Generally, people inherit the tendency to have weak valves and varicose veins. Women have more of them than men partly because pregnancy and other hormonal changes can put pressure on the veins. People who are overweight or inactive are more likely to develop them.

Q: Can you prevent varicose veins?

There’s not a lot you can do to prevent varicose veins. Still, some lifestyle changes might help.

Most importantly, keep your weight down and your activity level up. Appropriate weight keeps excess pressure off your veins, while activity improves circulation.

Recommendations that help some people:

  • Wear clothing that isn’t tight and doesn’t create pressure around the waist, pelvis and legs.
  • Try elastic support stockings (or prescription compression stockings).
  • Avoid standing or sitting for a long time. Move around every half hour or so.
  • Elevate your legs above the level of your heart for 15 minutes twice a day to give your veins a break from gravity.
  • Sit with your legs apart, not crossed.
  • Eat a high-fiber, low-sodium diet to avoid constipation, swelling and pressure on the veins.

Q: I don’t see any varicose veins, but my legs hurt: Could it be varicose veins?

Some varicose veins can’t be seen. You might have them if your legs ache or throb when you’ve been standing or sitting for a while. Cramps or swelling can also be signs. Legs that feel heavy or are restless might have varicose veins. Skin darkening or an itchy, irritated rash are other symptoms. Other problems could cause any of those symptoms, so if you have concerns, have them checked out by your health care professional.

Q: Are varicose veins dangerous?

While most varicose veins are just a cosmetic problem, some varicose veins cause health problems ranging from sores to blood clots. It’s important to note that while they can be painful, they aren’t dangerous clots, like those in deep veins.

Don’t hesitate to consult your health care professional about even minor problems with varicose veins – or just because you don’t like the way they look.

Make sure you see the doctor if you have:

  • A vein that’s swollen, painful, tender or warm
  • Sores or rashes near the ankle
  • Thickening and skin color change on the calf or ankle
  • Bleeding
  • Leg problems that get in the way of your daily activities.

Q: What treatments are available for varicose veins?

Varicose veins are easy to treat. There are different treatments for different sizes of veins. All are done in the doctor’s office or as outpatient procedures.

A vascular surgeon (vein doctor) might:

  • Inject a chemical into the vein to seal off the walls (sclerotherapy),
  • Use laser or radio waves to block a vein, or
  • Tie off and remove veins through incisions (microphlebectomy -or removal through tiny incisions).

Most insurance companies cover varicose vein treatments. Talk to your doctor to find an approach that works for you.

Dr. Peter J. Bartzen is a general & vascular surgeon at Aurora Health Center in Racine, Wis.

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About the Author

Dr. Peter Bartzen
Dr. Peter Bartzen

Peter J. Bartzen, MD is a General & Vascular Surgeon at Aurora Health Center in Racine, WI.