What are Varicose Veins?
Varicose veins appear as twisted, rope-like and enlarged veins and are often dark blue in color, located near or raised above the surface of the skin. They can vary in size and severity, from small to large and very visibly pronounced. Once they appear, they never improve on their own and require treatment to be eliminated. Varicose veins are most commonly seen on the legs, but they can occur anywhere on the body. These veins can result from broken valves in veins underlying the skin that are not visible to the eye. In the legs, the underlying veins are called the Saphenous and Perforator Systems of Veins, and they connect to even deeper veins which are well below the skin’s surface, under the muscles of the leg.
When veins are healthy, one way valves inside the veins direct the flow of blood in the leg upward toward the heart. When one or more of these valves fails to function, the blood in the malfunctioning vein flows in the reverse direction, causing the veins under the skin to engorge and distend. The “back up” of blood flow increases the pressure in the veins to a level that is three to four times the normal. This high pressure then causes the veins to bulge and stretch, and often results in inflammation and pain.
Varicose veins do not just suddenly occur. It may take years for signs and symptoms to develop. Genetics and inheritance play a major role in their occurrence, but anyone can develop them, even without a family history. They commonly occur during pregnancy and in people that have had certain types of leg injuries or deep vein blood clots. People that work in jobs that require prolonged standing or sitting are also at higher risk. Not surprisingly, many of our patients work as teachers, nurses, assembly line workers, pharmacists, bartenders, construction workers, and cashiers. A physical exam along with ultrasound is necessary to determine the extent and severity of the varicose veins, to determine if the varicose veins are caused by broken valves in the veins underlying the skin. Although less common, it is possible to have varicose veins and not experience painful symptoms.
Symptoms of varicose veins include:
- Pain or a heavy feeling in the legs relieved by elevation
- Large twisted veins the bulge above the surface of the skin
- Swelling of the ankle or lower leg
- Discolored, dry, itchy skin near the ankle
- A rash or skin ulceration on the ankle or lower leg
Why Varicose Veins Should be Treated
Varicose veins are common and they can be painful, unattractive and worsen over time. Varicose veins can cause legs and feet to swell, create a sense of fatigue in leg muscles, and throbbing and cramping at night. The skin surrounding the veins may also itch and burn. In some severe cases, venous insufficiency may develop, preventing normal blood return to the heart which can lead to problems like deep-vein thrombosis (blood clot). Patients with venous insufficiency often benefit from medical treatment. Left untreated, varicose veins can lead to swelling, increased pain, skin discoloration, and ulcerations of the lower legs. These ulcerations are difficult to treat and can become easily infected and painful. Many of these symptoms and complications can be prevented by early treatment of varicose veins.