Varicose veins and your health

Easy, state-of-the-art treatments available for varicose veins

Bulging, ropey veins can be a serious health issue, not just a cosmetic concern. Varicose veins are enlarged veins that look something like twisted blue cords protruding above the surface of the skin. They most often form on the backs of the calves or on the inside of the leg. Spider veins are similar, but are smaller and less pronounced, typically appearing as blue or red starbursts or threadlike lines on the legs and face. While spider veins can be bothersome, they don’t compromise a person’s general health the same way varicose veins can.

People with varicose veins may experience painful heaviness, fatigue, burning, throbbing, itching, and restlessness or swelling in their legs. Left untreated, varicose veins can enlarge and worsen over time, and in severe cases may lead to infection, rash, skin ulcers, and potentially life-threatening blood clots.

Faulty valves in the vein are the root cause of varicose veins. As you may recall from basic anatomy, blood is pumped to your arms and legs through large arteries, then travels back to the heart through smaller veins. Veins have one-way valves to keep blood moving in the right direction, but when those valves fail, blood can flow backwards and pool up, creating a bulging varicose vein.

Five major factors contribute to the development of varicosity—some of which we can control, and some of which we can’t. Age is the first factor. As we get older, our veins lose elasticity, which contributes to valve malfunction. The second factor is gender. Three-quarters of varicose vein sufferers are women. Female hormones tend to relax vein walls, so hormonal changes during pregnancy or menopause, or from oral contraceptives or hormone replacement therapy, may increase the risk of varicose veins. Genetics is the third risk factor in developing varicose veins. If other members of your family have enlarged veins, chances are good that you’ll be susceptible, too.

While there’s not much we can do about age, gender, and genetics, we do have power over the last two risk factors: weight and activity levels. People who are significantly overweight are at higher risk for varicosity because of the added pressure on legs and veins. Regular exercise (especially running or walking) improves your leg strength and circulation, which in turn improves your vein strength. It’s also important not to stand or sit for extended periods of time. If your work or hobby requires long stretches of sitting or standing, take a break every 30 minutes to walk around, or even elevate the legs periodically, if possible.

How do you know if you should be concerned about varicose veins? If you can see bulging veins, it’s very likely you have a problem. If your veins have become more swollen, red, or warm and tender to the touch, or if you have a rash or red patch on the affected leg or near the ankle, it’s definitely time to see the doctor. (People who have a tendency to develop varicose veins should also be aware that they may also be at higher risk of other circulatory system disorders.)

Today, minimally invasive outpatient laser or radiofrequency therapy is the treatment of choice for varicose veins—a great improvement over the old days of vein stripping. These new state-of-the- art procedures are fast, simple, and almost completely painless. No general anesthesia or hospitalization is needed, and there is no scarring and no long recovery time. Success rates are 90 percent and higher, and the procedure is usually covered by insurance. Safe, effective, noninvasive treatments are also available to treat spider veins.

If you’re concerned about your veins, call your doctor or a vein specialist today. It’s about your health, not just your appearance.

Dr. James (Bo) Johnson, MD, FACS is Medical Director of Rocky Mountain Vein Clinics, PC of Billings, MT and Cody, WY.

Download the full PDF here