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What are varicose veins?

Varicose veins are enlarged veins that are visible through the skin and may appear as blue or purple twisted, knot-like cords. Varicose veins can occur anywhere in the body, but are more commonly found on the legs. Hemorrhoids, a type of varicose vein, can appear during pregnancy around the anus or in the vagina.

What causes varicose veins?

Varicose veins are caused by increased blood pressure inside the superficial leg veins. Two main types of veins are present in the legs. Superficial veins are near the surface of the skin, whereas deep veins are located in the muscle tissue. Varicose veins occur in the superficial veins in the legs. In contrast, deep veins lead to the vena cava, a large vein that transports blood to the heart.
The blood in the veins of the legs works against gravity in order to return upwards to the heart. The blood is moved up towards the heart by one-way valves in the veins. When the leg muscles contract and squeeze the deep veins, the valves inside the veins open. When the leg muscles relax, the valves close, preventing blood from flowing backward.

When the one-way valves become weakened or damaged, blood can collect in the veins, causing the veins to become enlarged. Sitting or standing for long periods can cause blood to pool in the leg veins, increasing the pressure within the veins. In persons who are prone to varicose veins, the veins can stretch as a result of increased pressure. This stretching of the veins may weaken the walls of the veins and damage the valves. Thick varicose veins or spider veins may result.
Other factors that may lead to weakened vein valves and the development of varicose veins include obesity, aging, leg injury, pregnancy, smoking, hormones, and heredity (being born with weak vein valves). While varicose veins are not considered a severe medical condition, they can be uncomfortable and can lead to more serious problems such as phlebitis (inflammation in the leg) or blood clot. Varicose veins can also be a cosmetic concern to some people.

Varicose veins, because they occur in superficial veins, are not generally linked to a serious condition called deep vein thrombosis (DVT). However, with severe varicose veins, there is a small increased chance of developing DVT. DVT requires immediate medical attention. Symptoms of DVT include sudden, severe leg swelling and can result in blood clots that travel to the brain or the heart.

Treatment for varicose veins:

Specific treatment for varicose veins will be determined by your physician based on:

  • your age, overall health, and medical history
  • extent of the condition
  • your signs and symptoms
  • your tolerance of specific medicines, procedures, or therapies
  • expectations for the course of the condition
  • your opinion or preference

Medical treatment may not be necessary if there are no symptoms. However, varicose veins may sometimes worsen without treatment. Treatment for varicose veins involves both surgical and nonsurgical approaches.

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