Varicose Veins: Causes and Risk Factors

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For many people, varicose veins are enough of a cosmetic or a medical issue to cause them to seek treatment from a vein doctor.  Fortunately, patients now have a variety of treatment options to consider.  Understanding the causes of these troublesome blood vessels and the risk factors for developing them makes it easier to choose the best treatment option.

Why Varicose Vessels Develop

Among Americans 50 and older, half are varicose vein sufferers, according to the Society of Interventional Radiology.  These annoying blood vessels affect as many as one of every four adults.

The mission of a vein is to carry blood from the limbs and other parts of the body back to the heart.  The anatomical causes of a varicose vein begin with a malfunction in a valve within the vein.  The role of this valve is to prevent blood from flowing downward due to gravity instead of upward toward the heart.  When a valve will not close correctly, blood leaks backward, then pools.

Eventually, the accumulation stretches the vein, causing it to become varicose.  The result is an unsightly ropelike blue, purple, or red vessel that might also cause discomfort.  Patients frequently complain of aching or throbbing, burning, cramping, legs that tire easily, or a sensation of heaviness, all of which tend to get worse as the day lengthens.  Among the potential complications are blood clots, ulcers, and bleeding from vessels close to the surface of the skin.

A number of factors represent risk for developing varicose vessels.  The Mayo Clinic cites these:

  • Aging, which causes valves in veins to weaken
  • Being female
  • Having a family history of the condition
  • Being obese or even overweight
  • Sitting or standing for prolonged periods

The Cleveland Clinic adds these risk factors:

  • Hormonal shifts while pregnant
  • Birth control pill use
  • Hormone replacement therapy after menopause
  • Wearing tight clothing
  • Patient history of one or more blood clots
  • Injury to a vein
  • Medical conditions like liver disease or heart failure that cause elevated abdominal pressure
  • Trauma to the skin
  • Prior vein surgery
  • Ultraviolet ray exposure

Vein Treatment Options

Varicose vein patients have a number of non-invasive as well as surgical treatment choices to consider, starting with lifestyle changes.  After an initial consultation, a vascular surgeon will recommend the best alternatives.  The options most often used include duplex ultrasound, endovenous laser treatment, ambulatory phlebectomy, and sclerotherapy (for small veins).  However, it is important to realize that no treatment will prevent the formation of additional problem veins.

Wake Forest® Baptist Health suggests that patients can take a number of steps to reduce their risk of developing new varicose vessels:

  • Getting enough exercise to minimize blood pooling in the legs
  • Losing weight
  • Avoiding restrictive clothing and high heels
  • Elevating the legs
  • Avoiding extended periods of standing or sitting
  • Not sitting with crossed legs