Varicose Veins

What are varicose veins? Varicose veins are identified as bluish, knotty cords running just under the surface of the skin. They are almost always found in the legs and feet. The veins may appear swollen and twisted. While varicose veins can be ugly and painful, they are usually harmless.

At times, varicose veins can cause aching, itchy skin, swollen ankles as well as other symptoms. Varicose veins can become tender to the touch in a process called phlebitis in which a clot forms in the varicose vein.

Varicose veins are a common condition affecting 20 – 25% of Americans. Women are twice as likely as men to develop them and they may be prevalent in family groups.

diagram of leg with varicose veins

What causes varicose veins? Varicose veins can be caused by any condition that puts excessive pressure on the abdomen. This pressure may become greater than the ability of the leg muscles surrounding the vein to push the blood upward towards the heart. There are many factors that can increase pressure in the lower body veins. Women are very susceptible to getting varicose veins due to pregnancy and hormonal factors. The most common sources of abdominal pressure are obesity, standing for long periods of time, and, in women, pregnancy. That’s why women who have had multiple pregnancies are very susceptible to getting varicose veins. Other conditions that may contribute to varicose veins are age (the veins weaken as the body gets older), heart conditions, kidney problems, a sedentary lifestyle that allows the leg muscles to atrophy, injury to the leg and its muscles, chronic constipation, previous clotting of leg veins (deep vein thrombosis) or even tumors may be contributing factors. There is also a genetic link. If other members of your family have varicose veins, there is a higher probability that you may get them too.

What happens when veins become varicose? Veins are the part of your circulatory system that moves blood back to your heart from your body. Blood flowing upward in your feet and legs back toward the heart has to overcome two obstacles: gravity and the distance from them to your heart. To overcome both gravity and the distance, the veins depend on the muscles surrounding them and a series of valves in the veins that close so that the blood doesn’t flow back down towards your feet. Varicose veins are caused when these valves do not work properly. When this happens, the blood pools in the vein, making it difficult for the surrounding leg muscles to push it up the vein towards your heart. Eventually, this pooling blood builds up pressure, and the vein becomes congested and begins to twist and bulge. The varicose veins also elongate and can become serpentine in nature.