Varicose veins can serve as a health warning Most people who have a varicose vein think of it first and foremost as a cosmetic issue – they’re unsightly, often bulging prominently, and can be very visible with a blue coloration to them.
The usual reaction is to want to have them removed because they don’t look attractive. But much more than being something you should address for reasons of vanity, it’s important to get varicose veins checked out as they might put you at risk for future health problems including blood clots and ulcers.
What is a varicose vein?
A varicose vein develops when the one-way valves in your veins become weak or damaged. They then don’t perform the function that they are there to do (to help keep your blood moving back towards your heart).
If the valves aren’t functioning as they should, the blood pools in your veins and causes swelling to occur.
Varicose veins are most commonly seen in the legs and ankles but can occur elsewhere in your body too. Haemorrhoids, for example, are varicose veins.
What causes varicose veins?
The weakening of the valves in veins can be caused by a number of factors. These include smoking, obesity, hormones, leg injury, and heredity – if you’re born with weak vein valves.
Sitting or standing for extended periods can cause the blood to pool in veins in the leg and this can increase the pressure and cause stretching of the veins, leading to the formation of varicose veins.
People also tend to be more likely to develop varicose veins as they get older, but younger people can have them too. Another stage in life where varicose veins can occur is during pregnancy.
Hormones released in the body during pregnancy such as oestrogen and progesterone dilate the veins. As the foetus grows, it becomes heavier, increasing pressure on the pelvis. In turn, this increases the pressure on leg veins and can lead to varicose vein formation.
What are the risks?
The health issues that varicose veins might lead to include a type of blood clotting called phlebitis. These are superficial blood clots that, although not life-threatening, can be very painful.
However, if a blood clot in a vein close to the skin (superficial) grows, there is the risk that it might then move to a deep vein.
There’s a 20-40% chance of people who have superficial phlebitis developing a deep vein clot simultaneously. A deep vein clot (or thrombosis) can break loose at any time and move to the lung via the bloodstream to the lung. There, it could cause a pulmonary embolism – a sudden and possibly life-threatening blockage.
Ultrasounds can be carried out to identify clots and they can then be treated with anti-coagulants (to thin the blood). Another medical condition that varicose veins are associated with is venous disease.
A person may have varicose veins that cause swelling in the legs. Often this is accompanied by darkening of the skin (hyperpigmentation) around the ankle. The person can then develop painful venous leg ulcers that are usually located on the inside of the leg above the ankle.
Often the first stage of treatment for varicose veins is the use of compression stockings, which squeeze the legs and encourage blood flow.
In more severe cases, the varicose veins can be removed. Today, a common treatment for varicose veins is laser or radiofrequency ablation.
A catheter is inserted via the skin into the vein. The vein is then heated using a laser fibre or radiofrequency electrode that causes the vein to close and blood flow is then directed towards healthy veins.
Smaller veins that have branched off the varicose veins are then removed using tiny incisions through the skin, and these are so small that stitches aren’t required. Following a procedure a patient will wear compression stockings for a few weeks.
A new treatment called Venaseal is also being trialled. It has been nicknamed the Superglue for varicose veins. It works by gluing the vein walls to each other, thereby preventing blood flowing through that particular vein.
So,if you notice the beginnings of a varicose vein, it is definitely worth getting them checked out by a doctor. Don’t feel embarrassed about getting a consultation for varicose veins – it’s not about being vain, it’s about safeguarding your health.