Varicose Veins Rarely Pose a Threat
It's alarming to see them, twisted and bulging, on your legs or feet, but varicose veins usually aren't dangerous. Varicose veins are dark purple or blue in color. They can look like cords or appear to be twisted and bulging. They are found most often on the backs of the calves or on the inside of the leg, anywhere from the groin to the ankle. Spider veins are similar to varicose veins, but they are smaller, are often red or blue in color, and are closer to the surface of the skin than varicose veins.
"For most people, varicose veins involve the veins lying close to the skin's surface. Cosmetically, they pose a problem, but medically, they have no major consequences," says Los Angeles vascular surgeon Albert Yellin, M.D.
Varicose veins affect up to 80 million Americans. Any vein in the body can be affected, but the most common sites are in the legs and feet. (Hemorrhoids are also varicose veins.) Symptoms caused by varicosities may include burning, throbbing, muscle cramping, minor swelling around the calf or ankle, or an achy, heavy feeling in the legs.
The condition marks a breakdown in the way the vein helps moves blood "uphill" to the heart. To help blood move easily upward, veins rely on surrounding leg muscles and a network of one-way valves inside the veins that prevent blood flowing backward. If pressure inside a vein gets too high, the valves malfunction, letting blood leak downward, where it pools in the feet and lower legs. Over time, this leads to the stretched-out, enlarged varicose veins.
Varicose veins affect women more often than men, especially women who have given birth. These people are also at risk: Those with a family history of vein problems, those who are overweight and those whose jobs require them to stand for long periods. Varicose veins tend to get worse over time.
If you notice sudden, persistent redness or swelling in the legs, says Dr. Yellin, you could have a different problem: a blood clot in a deep vein. "Deep veins are critical to blood circulation. If the blood flow is disrupted there, you have a life-threatening situation." A clot deep in the leg could break off and reach the lungs, a condition called pulmonary embolism.
Other danger signs that suggest something more than just varicose veins include discolored and leathery skin or sores near the ankle. If you have any of these symptoms, see a doctor immediately.
How to help yourself
To reduce discomfort or mild swelling:
Lie flat with feet propped above the level of your heart. Do this for 10 to 15 minutes, several times a day.
Wear light-support stockings every day. These lightly compress the leg, giving veins extra support.
Begin a habit of regular exercise now, before you develop varicosities. Exercise helps move blood from the legs back to the heart, and the increased muscle tone helps support the blood vessels, particularly a group of veins called perforators. These veins connect the superficial veins with the deep veins. If you already have varicose veins, exercise will still help the return of blood to the heart and will reduce swelling in the legs.
If your lifestyle or family history puts you at risk, here are ways in addition to exercise to boost your circulation and leg-muscle tone:
If you must stand or sit for long periods, change position frequently or take breaks and spend a few minutes walking briskly.
Keep your weight down. Extra pounds put pressure on veins.
Avoid tight panty girdles or clothing that strongly binds your calves or groin.
Do not cross your legs when sitting.