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Varicose Veins

What are Varicose Veins?

The vascular system can be described as a vast roadway leading to and from the heart. Nutrient- and oxygen-rich blood is transported throughout the body by the arteries, and is then carried back to the heart via the veins. While blood-flow through arteries is assisted by force created from the pumping of the heart, this force is much lower in the veins. Additionally, particularly in the legs, blood-flow in the veins must progress upwards, against the force of gravity. To overcome these difficulties, the veins contain a series of specialized one-way valves that open to allow the blood to flow upwards and then shut to keep the blood from flowing back downwards towards the feet.

Varicose veins are almost always caused by valve deterioration in the veins of the leg. Varicose veins tend to occur in superficial veins, those veins closer to the surface of the skin. They can occur anywhere, but are most often found on the back of the calf or on the inside of the leg or in the groin area. When the valves in veins do not function properly, the blood leaks or flows backwards. Over time, this puts pressure on the veins, causing them to stretch and dilate.

Varicose veins are not uncommon - approximately 30% of people will develop them. Varicose veins are thought to occur more frequently in women than in men. Factors that increase the pressure on the legs can increase people's chance of developing varicose veins. For example, people who are overweight or who spend much of their day standing are more likely to develop varicose veins. Varicose veins sometimes appear during pregnancy. Age and heredity are also risk factors for developing varicose veins.

The danger of varicose veins is that the backflow of blood may result in the formation of a blood clot, a condition called deep vein thrombosis.

How are Varicose Veins Diagnosed?

Varicose veins can be diagnosed by looking at the legs. Varicose veins are enlarged and become dark purplish or blue in color, and have a twisted or bulging appearance. Varicose veins can become very uncomfortable, causing swelling as well as painful aching, throbbing or cramping in the feet and legs.

A venous ultrasound test may be necessary to determine the cause or severity of the condition, and to see whether there are blood clots in the enlarged veins.

What Treatment Options are Available for Varicose Veins?

Most varicose veins can be managed with non-surgical treatment. Treatment includes wearing compression stockings, which apply a steady squeezing to the legs to help the veins and leg muscles move blood efficiently back toward the heart. Exercise, elevating the legs when sitting, and avoiding long periods of standing can also help the condition.

Surgical treatment may be needed if there is severe aching, infections or venous ulcers in the legs related to the poor circulation. Many patients seek a surgical cure for cosmetic reasons as they feel the veins are unsightly.

Several procedures are available to treat varicose veins. These include a minimally invasive procedure for removing varicose veins called sclerotherapy and a more invasive surgical treatment for particularly large varicose veins called ligation and stripping.

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