How Do I Know If I Have Varicose Veins?

Understanding Varicose Veins

Varicose veins are enlarged, gnarled, swollen veins that most commonly occur in the legs, ankles and feet. This happens as a result of a condition called venous insufficiency or venous reflux, meaning blood pools in the veins of the lower extremities. For blood to be returned to the heart, the veins must work against gravity. Muscle contractions of the lower extremities act as a pump. These work in tandem with the elastic-like interior of the veins to return blood to the heart for recirculation. When blood collects in the veins, swelling and sometimes pain can result. More than 25 million Americans suffer from venous reflux, most of them women.

Age and Gender

As one ages, veins often lose their elasticity and stretch out. The valves intended to prevent back flow are performing less efficiently. This normal wear and tear causes the valves to weaken, causing pooling of the blood that hasn't been returned to the circulatory system. Varicose veins appear blue or purple because they contain deoxygenated blood waiting for recirculation through the lungs.

Pregnancy is also a leading cause of varicose veins, especially in women who have had more than one child. During pregnancy, a woman's blood volume increases to support the needs of the developing fetus. Varicose veins can worsen in the third trimester when the uterus is putting heavy pressure on the leg veins. Hormonal changes occurring throughout pregnancy are also believed to play a role by causing the venous walls to become more pliable and less elastic. Fortunately, pregnancy-induced varicose veins usually correct themselves without medical treatment within months of giving birth. Obesity, prolonged standing or sitting, and family history also increase the likelihood of developing varicose veins.

Signs and Symptoms

Visual signs of varicose veins include blue or purple veins that appear bunched, lumpy or cord-like. They can occur anywhere between the groin and the ankle, but are most commonly seen on the inner thigh or the back side of the calf or knee. Some people report no painful symptoms due to varicose veins, but for others it can be an uncomfortable and sometimes debilitating condition. Physical manifestations include a burning or aching sensation in the legs, muscle cramping and a feeling of "heaviness," pain after sitting or standing for long periods of time, and swelling or itching surrounding an affected vein.

What You Can Do

Most health care providers believe a conservative non-invasion plan of care is best to treat varicose veins. There are many self-help remedies to combat discomfort and prevent the condition from worsening. Maintaining a healthy weight is highly recommended, as it lessens the pressure exerted on the legs. Elevating the extremities and avoiding prolonged episodes of sitting and standing are advisable. Wearing compression stockings can ease the physical discomfort. If the condition continues to worsen, the client and their physician may consider one of the minimally invasive surgical options available. Thanks to catheter technology, it is now possible for your physician to intervene surgically right in the office using a local anesthetic. Endovenous laser delivers high heat to the affected area that seals the vein as the device is removed. Clients are reporting little to no post-operative discomfort, and this technique has phased out the old method of vein stripping, which entailed a much longer and more uncomfortable recovery period.

Get a Leg Up

Varicose veins tend to worsen over time. Working together with your healthcare team you can devise a plan of action to slow the process, and to assure the highest quality of life possible.

Author is working with VIRA, VASCULAR AND INTERVENTIONAL RADIOLOGY ASSOCIATES (VIRA) procedure performed by a group of interventional radiologists organized to treat women with symptomatic Uterine Fibroid Embolization.

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