Varicose veins - causes and treatments

Caroline Cassidy

An estimated three in 10 adults are affected by varicose veins. For some, the only issue is their unsightly appearance while others will experience discomfort.

varicose veins
varicose veins

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The NHS advises that there is little you can do to prevent varicose veins but it is rarely a serious condition and there are things you can do to relieve any pain.

What are varicose veins?
The veins, which carry blood to the heart, contain tiny valves that open and close. When these valves weaken or become damaged, the blood is able to flow backwards and collect in the vein, causing them to swell.

Varicose veins usually develop in the legs and feet as standing and walking put added pressure on veins in the lower part of the body. However, they can appear in other areas such as the oesophagus, womb, pelvis or rectum.

Who is affected?
It is a fairly common condition, as mentioned, and most often affects women. Age, being overweight, pregnant or in a job that involves long periods of standing may also increase the risk while you are also more prone to developing varicose veins if a close family member has the condition.

What are the symptoms?
Usually dark purple or blue in coloration, varicose veins often appear twisted and swollen. Aching, heavy legs, swollen feet and ankles or a throbbing sensation are other symptoms and, in severe cases, varicose veins can cause muscle cramps (often disturbing sleep) or result in dry, itchy, thin skin above the affected vein.

Symptoms may worsen if you are standing for long periods of time and are often exacerbated by warm weather.

A large proportion of those with varicose veins need no treatment at all and if your only concern is their appearance, you will likely have to pay for treatment. For those that experience pain or discomfort, however, your GP may be able to suggest treatment.

Compression stockings, which squeeze your legs thereby improving circulation, help to encourage the blood to flow towards the heart, relieving discomfort and swelling. They are now available in different colours, lengths and levels of pressure.

Large veins may require surgery and there are a number of options. The majority of surgeons will use ligation and stripping, which removes the vein via a small incision. The vast majority of operations are successful, but it can cause pain, bruising and bleeding afterwards and, in rare cases, nerve damage or deep vein thrombosis.

Sclerotherapy is more suitable with small to medium-sized varicose veins. This treatment uses a chemical which, when injected into the vein, causes scarring and seals them closed.

A number of less invasive treatments, such as radiofrequency ablation and tranilluminated powered phlebectomy, have limited availability on the NHS and not much is known about their long-term effectiveness.

What can I do?
If you are plagued with aching legs caused by varicose veins, you may be able to ease the symptoms yourself. If possible, avoid sitting or standing for long periods of time and be sure to move around or change position if your job requires standing.

Taking regular breaks where you can keep your legs raised and improve the blood flow may also help, while taking regular exercise (even just walking) will improve circulation and help you to maintain a healthy weight.