Varicose veins are swollen, twisted, and enlarged veins that you can see under the skin. Often they are red or blue in color. They usually appear in the legs, but can occur in other parts of the body.
Causes, incidence, and risk factors
Normally, one-way valves in your leg veins keep blood moving up toward the heart. When the valves do not work properly, blood backs up into the vein. The vein swells from the blood that collects there, which causes varicose veins. Smaller varicose veins you that can see on the surface of skin are called spider veins.
Varicose veins are common, and affect more women than men. They usually don't cause problems for most people. However, in some people, they can lead to serious conditions, such as leg swelling and pain, blood clots, and skin changes.
Risk factors include:
Being female (Hormonal changes from puberty, pregnancy and menopause can lead to varicose veins. Taking birth control pills or hormone replacement can also increase your risk.)
Wear compression stockings to decrease swelling. They gently squeeze your legs to move blood up your legs.
Do not sit or stand for long periods. Even moving your legs slightly helps keep the blood flowing.
Raise your legs above your heart three or four times a day for 15 minutes at a time.
Care for wounds in you have any open sores or infections. Your health care provider can show you how.
Lose weight if you are overweight.
Get more exercise. This can help you keep off weight and help move blood up your legs. Walking or swimming are good options.
If you have dry or cracked skin on your legs, moisturizing may help. However, some skin care treatments can make the problem worse. Talk to your health care provider before using any lotions, creams or antibiotic ointments. Your provider can recommend lotions that can help.
If your condition is severe, your doctor may recommend the following treatments:
Laser therapy: Strong bursts of light are projected on smaller varicose veins, making them disappear.
Sclerotherapy: Salt water or a chemical solution is injected into the vein. The vein hardens and disappears.
Ablation: Heat is used to close off and destroy the vein. The vein disappears over time.
Vein stripping: Small surgical cuts are made in the leg near the damaged vein. The vein is removed through one of the cuts.
Valve repair: A small incision is made in the leg and the damaged valve is repaired.
Bypass: This is surgery to reroute blood flow around the blocked vein. A tube or blood vessel taken from your body is used to make a detour around, or bypass, the damaged vein.
Angioplastyand stenting: This is a procedure to open a narrowed or blocked vein. Angioplasty uses a tiny medical balloon to widen the blocked vein. The balloon presses against the inside wall of the vein to open it and improve blood flow. A tiny metal mesh tube called a stent is then placed inside the vein to prevent it from narrowing again.
Varicose veins tend to get worse over time. Taking self-care steps can help relieve achiness and pain, keep varicose veins from getting worse, and prevent more serious problems.
Calling your health care provider
Call for an appointment with your health care provider if:
Varicose veins are painful
They get worse or do not improve with self-care, such as by wearing compression stockings or avoiding standing or sitting for too long
You have a sudden increase in pain or swelling, fever, redness of the leg, or leg sores
Goldman MP, Guex JJ, Weiss RA. Sclerotherapy: Treatment of Varicose and Telangiectatic Leg Veins. 5th ed. Phildelphia, Pa.: Elsevier Saunders; 2011.
Nijsten T, van den Bos RR, Goldman MP, et al. Minimally invasive techniques in the treatment of saphenous varicose veins. J Am Acad Dermatol. 2009;60:110-119.
Diane M. Horowitz, MD, North Shore Long Island Jewish Health System, Great Neck, NY. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Bethanne Black, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.