Veins serve a very important purpose in our body, carrying deoxygenated blood back to our heart.
In our legs, blood is collected in the superficial veins, just below the skin surface, and delivered to deeper veins that run within our calf muscles. The muscular action of our calves helps to pump the blood against the force of gravity towards the heart. One-way valves inside the veins prevent the blood from travelling backwards.
If these valves fail to close properly, blood pools in the superficial veins. Over time, the affected veins distend with blood (become ‘varicose’). Varicose veins are knobbly, twisted and dark blue in appearance.
Spider veins are like varicose veins, but smaller and closer to the surface of the skin. They are often red or blue and can look like tree branches or spider webs. They are mostly found on a person’s legs or face. They may cover a small or large area.
These problem veins can be treated in two main ways. Surgery is usually used on only the larger varicose veins, while sclerotherapy can help with smaller veins.
Treatment of varicose veins and spider veins is not just for cosmetic reasons. Varicose vein disease can cause many health problems, such as blood clots, venous eczema, skin breakdown and ulceration, and, rarely, skin cancers.
In many cases, varicose veins can run in the family.
Women seem to get the problem more often than men. Changes in oestrogen levels in a woman’s blood may have a role in the development of varicose veins. Such hormonal changes occur during puberty, pregnancy, breastfeeding and menopause.
Factors that may increase your risk of developing varicose veins include:
- standing or sitting for long periods
- being immobile for long periods – for example, being confined to bed
- lack of exercise
Problems can occur if the faulty valves are located within the veins that that go through the calf muscles.
Associated problems can include aching in the legs, skin rashes, brownish ‘stains’ on the skin surface, skin ulcers and blood clots forming within veins.
Prevention and treatment
Regular exercise, maintaining a good weight balance, wearing support stockings and avoiding high heels are all effective methods that will help prevent the occurrence of varicose veins.
Some varicose veins and spider veins can be treated by sclerotherapy, which is the injection of irritant chemicals (sclerosants) into the affected vein.
The irritant prompts the vein to spasm and collapse in on itself. In time, the walls of the collapsed vein heal together, and the sealed vein can no longer carry blood.
Leg veins clear up slowly after sclerotherapy and may take up to two to six months to resolve, depending on their size. A compression stocking worn on the leg helps to speed this process.
Small veins need compression for around three to six days, while bigger veins need about six weeks.
Major surface veins that are varicose are usually treated surgically. Generally, a surgeon makes numerous small incisions to reach the vein, rather than one large cut.
Depending on the location of the varicose vein, these incisions may, for example, be in the groin or behind the knee.
Have you ever had surgery for varicose veins? Did your life improve after the surgery?
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Disclaimer: This article contains general information about health issues and is not advice. For health advice, consult your medical practitioner.