Varicose veins are veins that are swollen and bulge above the surface of the skin. They may be twisted and are often blue or dark purple. Varicose veins are most commonly found on the legs or feet, but they can also be found on the groin. Varicose veins that you see are just under the surface of the skin. There are often deeper and larger varicose veins that you can’t see. Hemorrhoids are a form of varicose veins.
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Varicose veins can be painful. You may have a feeling of heaviness or tiredness in your legs. Your legs may ache or throb where there are varicose veins. You may also have swelling of your feet, ankles and lower legs that gets worse throughout the day, but goes down overnight or if you elevate your legs. This swelling is called venous stasis. Sometimes, your skin may be itchy. In some severe cases, ulcers or blood clots may develop. If you begin to have any of these symptoms, let your doctor know immediately.
Varicose veins do not increase your risk of dangerous blood clots. These clots form in veins deep inside your legs or arms. Blood clots can also form in varicose veins, but they can be treated by your doctor with warm compresses or medicines.
Veins return blood back to the heart so that it can be recirculated to the rest of your body. There are valves in your veins that open to allow the blood to flow towards the heart. In some people, the valves may stop working correctly, allowing blood to flow back down into the veins. (This often happens because the valves have stretched over the years.) Blood then pools in the veins, causing them to swell even more. The veins in your legs are especially vulnerable because those veins have to work against gravity to get the blood back to your heart. This is why most varicose veins are found in the legs.
This picture shows the difference between valves that work correctly (left) and valves that do not work correctly (right).
There are several things you can do at home to improve the symptoms of varicose veins:
Your doctor may recommend that you wear compression stockings. These are stockings that provide gentle, consistent pressure. This will help keep blood from pooling in your legs and reduce swelling from venous stasis when you are sitting or standing. Compression stockings can be found at pharmacies and medical supply stores.
If your symptoms don’t get any better with at-home care, or if you don’t like the way varicose veins look, there are more invasive treatment options available. These include surgery, laser therapy and injection therapy. Your doctor can recommend which procedure would be the best option for you.
Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research. Varicose veins. Accessed May 11, 2010
National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI). Varicose veins: How are varicose veins treated?. Accessed May 11, 2010
Turpie A. Varicose veins. Accessed May 11, 2010
Weiss M. Varicose Veins and Spider Veins. Accessed May 11, 2010
Written by familydoctor.org editorial staff