Varicose Veins Causes and Treatments

Close-up of woman's calves on beach
Varicose veins are a common sign of aging, but certain conditions can cause them, too. See more skin problem pictures.

They're not pretty, but they are pretty common. Varicose veins -- gnarled, swollen blood vessels visible just under the skin's surface -- affect half of all adults age 50 and older [source: National Institutes of Health]. Varicose veins can make your legs ache, but they aren't usually dangerous.

A varicose vein can appear anywhere on the body, but is most commonly found on the feet and lower legs, particularly on the backs of the calves [source: Mayo Clinic]. Although the location may vary, all varicose veins have their origins in common: They occur when small vein valves begin to leak.


Normally, the veins return oxygen-depleted blood from throughout the body to the heart, where the blood is then pumped through the lungs to once again become oxygen-rich [source: Wilson]. Gravity makes this return trip to the heart and lungs difficult, particularly when blood needs to flow upward from the feet and legs. Fortunately, veins have one-way valves to keep blood flowing upstream; the valves open as the blood flows upward and then snap shut to keep blood from flowing backward.

When these valves stop working efficiently, blood pools in the veins and causes them to become enlarged. The veins not only appear swollen, but also take on a deep cerulean hue. Why so blue? Because they are full of deoxygenated blood that should have been re-circulated through the lungs, but instead was left behind in a malfunctioning varicose vein [source: Mayo Clinic].

Varicose veins become more common with age, largely because the valves in veins can progressively weaken as you grow older [source: National Heart Lung and Blood Institute]. In addition, there are a number of factors that can put you at risk for developing varicose veins, and you can find out more about those on the next page.



What Causes Varicose Veins

Odds are, if you're of the female persuasion, varicose veins will one day be a concern. The hormonal swings that occur from puberty to menopause --as well as changes brought on by birth control medications -- may make women more likely to develop varicose veins [source: National Heart Lung and Blood Institute].

Pregnancy also presents a prime time to develop varicose veins. As a growing baby puts pressure on the inferior vena cava, the large vein on the right side of the body, this translates into increased pressure on the leg veins. Plus, your body's blood volume doubles during pregnancy. This increased blood flow causes veins to work overtime while a simultaneous surge of progesterone relaxes vein walls [source: BabyCenter]. Being overweight can put an additional burden on the legs; increased weight makes it more difficult for veins to carry blood back to the heart and can result in enlarged veins [source: National Heart Lung and Blood Institute].


If your mother or your grandmother had noticeable veins, you probably will, too. According to the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute, about half of all people who develop varicose veins have a close relative with the condition.

But there are things you can do to prevent varicose veins. Staying in one position for an extended period of time -- like sitting at your desk with your legs crossed -- can put more wear and tear on the valves in your veins [source: National Heart Lung and Blood Institute]. That's why it's important to move frequently throughout the day or elevate your feet when possible. In addition, frequent exercise -- especially movements that focus on leg strength or stamina -- can improve circulation.

Paying attention to what you eat can help, too. A diet rich in fiber but low in salt can keep you from swelling and from being constipated -- two factors that can contribute to varicose veins [source: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services]. If you're constipated, you'll end up straining to have a bowel movement and the increased pressure from your abdominal muscles will stretch the valves in your leg veins [source: McDougall].

If you're really determined to prevent varicose veins, you can wear compression hose. The veins in the legs have valves stationed at regular intervals that act as an escalator to usher blood back up to the lungs and heart. When you wear support stockings -- which fit snugly at the ankle and progressively loosen toward the waist -- the garment helps veins push blood against gravity. For best results, put on compression hose in the morning -- before you even get out of bed -- then wear them all day [source: BabyCenter]. They may not be comfy, but they're better than having varicose veins -- especially when it comes to bleeding varicose veins. Next, learn more about this and other varicose vein complications.


Bleeding Varicose Veins

Enlarged veins with a twisted appearance just below the skin may keep you from showing off your legs, but sometimes there's more to this condition than meets the eye. In rare severe cases, varicose veins are as much a health concern as they are a cosmetic issue.

At the mild end of the spectrum, varicose vein symptoms include a feeling of heaviness or pain in the legs. But sometimes these symptoms can progress to more serious concerns, such as swelling, spontaneous bleeding or ulcers.


Complications like a ruptured varicose vein are very rare, but can be fatal because of rapid blood loss. Because varicose veins protrude from the leg and lie just under the skin, they may be more at risk for damage caused by a fall, bump or scrape [source: eHealthMD]. In addition, varicose veins may bleed more heavily than normal veins damaged under the same conditions. This is because blood flows through varicose veins with abnormally high pressure [source: eHealthMD].

If a varicose vein should begin to hemorrhage because it was damaged during a scrape or cut to the skin, it's crucial to immediately elevate the area and apply steady, firm pressure until the bleeding stops [source: Hejna]. Skin and tissue become more fragile with age -- making a cut to the skin more likely to damage the vein underneath -- so elderly people are at increased risk for hemorrhaging from leg injuries that would otherwise be minor concerns [source: Byard].

Skin ulcers can also lead to ruptured varicose veins and are a health complication all their own. Venous skin ulcers, also known as stasis leg ulcers, are wounds that develop on the skin. These wounds occur when leg veins fail to efficiently pump blood back to the heart. That's because these open sores develop where pooled blood has leaked from nearby veins, causing swelling and depriving the tissues of oxygen. These conditions cause a skin ulcer, which isn't life-threatening, but may not heal without medical treatment to the skin and underlying veins [source: WebMD].

If these worst-case scenarios have you thinking about heading for the nearest doctor, read on to learn about the range of varicose vein treatments.


Varicose Vein Treatments

Some measures used to prevent varicose veins, like wearing compression stockings or elevating the feet, can be used to treat minor varicose vein conditions [source: Mayo Clinic]. There are also a number of medical treatments, most of which don't require you to check in to a hospital or take time off work.

In fact, many of the vein treatment procedures approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration can be performed at a physician's office. Most in-office procedures cost $300 to $400 for each treatment session [source: The American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery].


Despite some advertising claims, however, varicose vein treatments don't offer a guarantee that you'll be hassle-free in the coming years. Although recent breakthroughs -- like laser treatments -- offer high success rates, they don't cure weak vein valves. This means that if you're prone to this problem, new varicose veins will probably develop in the future [source: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services].

One of the most common non-surgical treatments is sclerotherapy, in which a solution is injected into the vein with a needle. This causes the vein to swell, seal shut, turn into scar tissue and fade within a few weeks [source: American Academy of Dermatologists]. This treatment can be up to 90 percent effective in "erasing" varicose veins, but difficult veins may need more than one treatment [source: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services]. Other side effects can include bruising or swelling at the injection site [source: WebMD].

Other treatments use radiofrequency or laser energy to cauterize and close varicose veins. Also known as endovenous ablation, these treatments are non-invasive, require little downtime and are thought to be more effective than surgically removing the veins. Vein ligation and stripping, for example, is a surgical procedure during which incisions are made in the skin covering the vein. The vein is then tied and removed, and the incisions are closed with sutures [source: WebMD].

Wondering if there's a more natural route to get rid of varicose veins? Find out on the next page.


Natural Cures for Varicose Veins

There are a number of things you can do to help prevent varicose veins, but once they develop, it's going to take more than support hose to get rid of these protruding vessels. Medical treatment to remove existing varicose veins is the only way to make them disappear.

If you prefer to try a more natural route, however, try ingesting the herb aescin. Aescin, extracted from horse-chestnuts, is to your blood vessels what spinach is to Popeye. Horse-chestnut extract strengthens blood vessel walls and this extra "muscle" boost can prevent veins from bulging or twisting. It can also reduce swelling often associated with varicose veins [source: Loecher].


You might also consider adding bioflavonoids to your diet. Bioflavonoids and vitamin C are believed to boost their respective benefits when taken together [source: Turner]. Dark-colored fruits like blueberries and cherries are filled with bioflavonoids, and this natural compound helps strengthen blood vessels. The bilberry fruit, a relative of the blueberry, also can be eaten or ingested as an extract to help with varicose veins in the same way [source: National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine]. The herb Ginkgo biloba, from the leaf of the ginkgo tree, is another source of bioflavonoids and is readily available in supermarkets and health food stores [source: Gale Encyclopedia of Alternative Medicine].

There are number of over-the-counter creams touted to treat varicose veins. Many of these creams contain natural ingredients, like calendula extract or vitamin E, which are believed to have anti-inflammatory properties. Unfortunately, lotions or dietary supplements won't make varicose veins disappear [source: Hunter].

Learn more about varicose veins and ways to treat them by visiting the links on the next page.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

  • American Academy of Dermatologists. "Vein Treatments." April 6, 2010.
  • American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery. "Surgeon Fees per Procedure." April 9. 2010.
  • BabyCenter. "Varicose Veins During Pregnancy." April 7, 2010.
  • Byard, Roger, et al. "The Incidence and Characteristic Features of Fatal Hemorrhage Due to Ruptured Varicose Veins: A 10-Year Autopsy Study." The American Journal of Forensic Medicine and Pathology. December 2007. 28; 4. 299-302.
  • Diabetes Health. "Vitamin C can Improve Circulation." May 1, 1996.
  • eHealthMD. "What Complications can Varicose Veins Cause?" October 2009.
  • Gale Encyclopedia of Alternative Medicine. "Bioflavonoids." 2005.
  • Hejna, P. "A Case of Fatal Spontaneous Varicose Vein Rupture; An Example of Incorrect First Aid." Journal of Forensic Sciences. September 2009. 54; 5. 1146-8.
  • Hunter, Julie. "5 Treatments to Get Rid of Varicose Veins." April 4, 2010.
  • Loecher, Barbara, et al. "New Choices in Natural Healing for Women." Rodale Press. September 2009.
  • Mayo Clinic. "Varicose Veins." Jan. 16, 2009.
  • Mayo Clinic. "Varicose Veins: Treatments and Drugs." Jan. 16, 2009.
  • McDougall, John. "Constipation, Hemorrhoids, Varicose Veins." April 10, 2010.
  • National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. "Bilberry." April 2008.
  • National Heart Lung and Blood Institute. "Who is at Risk for Varicose Veins?" April 5, 2010.
  • National Institutes of Health. "Varicose Veins." April 4, 2010.
  • Parks, Robin. "Deep Vein Thrombosis." Jan. 15, 2008.
  • Turner, Natasha, ND. "Bravo for Bioflavonoids!" March 2006.
  • U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. "Varicose Veins and Spider Veins." April 7, 2010.
  • WebMD. "Sclerotherapy for Varicose and Spider Veins." Feb. 28, 2008.
  • WebMD. "Varicose Veins: Treatment Overview." Feb. 11, 2008.
  • WebMD. "Venous Skin Ulcer." Sept. 3, 2009.
  • Wilson, Sue. "How Does the Circulatory System Work?" April 4, 2010.