As a young girl, I remember seeing an older woman walk past me. I was noticing her outfit - a nicely patterned top, a pair of shorts and sandals. As she walked away, I noticed what looked like a network of dark bluish lines running up and down the back of the calves. At the time, I didn’t know what they were, but eventually learned that this network was actually varicose veins.
It turns out that varicose veins, which are swollen and twisted veins that are located right below the skin, and their smaller version, spider veins, are quite common. In fact, about 50 percent of women in the United States have developed this condition.
So what exactly are they? Varicose veins can develop in the body’s veins, which have the difficult task of moving blood back into the heart in order for it to pick up more oxygen. These veins - especially those in the legs – often are working against gravity and are under a lot of pressure to move the blood into the trunk portion of the body. The veins contain one-way valves that are used to maintain blood flow. In the case of varicose veins, the valves have weakened or been damaged, which allows blood to back up. The blood eventually pools in the vein, causing swelling and, potentially, twisting or bulging. Varicose veins can be red, blue or skin-colored and are most often seen on the inside of the legs, the thighs and the back of the calves. There also are smaller versions, called spider veins. These veins, which are often red or blue, look like spider webs and can form on the legs as well as the face.
Age combined with hormonal changes that happen during menopause increase the chances that women will develop this condition. Part of the increase in risk is due to the weakening of valves in the veins. You also can be more prone to varicose veins if you have a family history of this condition, are overweight or obese, sit or stand for long periods of time, bend or cross your legs often, or experience leg trauma due to blood clots or other types of damage to the vein’s valves. Varicose veins and spider veins also can be caused by sun exposure or may have developed when you were pregnant. Interestingly, constipation can also contribute to the development of varicose veins. High heels also can be a culprit. And if you’re taking hormone replacement therapy, please note that it may increase your risk of developing varicose veins.
The signs that you might be developing varicose veins or spider veins can vary. These symptoms can include leg throbbing, cramping or heaviness. You also might see an irritated rash or fell an aching pain that feels worse after sitting or standing for a long duration. Having restless legs also can indicate that you’re developing this condition.
The good news is that most of the time, spider veins are not dangerous to your health. Varicose veins also may be benign, but there is also a chance of developing health issues such as skin ulcers, significant bleeding if the area is injured, superficial thrombophlebitis (a blood clot that develops in the vein just below the skin) or deep vein thrombosis (a blood clot in a deeper vein that, if dislodged, can prove to be fatal).
With that said, you shouldn’t panic if you have varicose veins. However, certain issues should signal that you should see a doctor. For instance, if the vein becomes very tender or warm to the touch, you should make an appointment. You should also be vigilant if the vein becomes swollen or red or begins to bleed. Sores or a rash that emerge on the leg or ankle should be addressed, as should a change in skin color or skin thickness on the ankle and calf. A doctor’s help also can benefit you if your varicose veins are limiting your ability to do daily activities or if you don’t like how the veins look. Medical professionals often recommend lifestyle changes (support hose or compression hose) as well as arrange of medical treatments to deal with spider veins and varicose veins.
Primary Sources for This Sharepost:
Mayo Clinic. (2013). Varicose veins.
National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. (2014). What are varicose veins?
National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. (2014). Who is at risk for varicose veins?
Womenshealth.gov. (2012). Varicose veins and spider veins fact sheet.
Dorian Martin writes about various topics for HealthCentral, including Alzheimer’s disease, diet/exercise, menopause and lung cancer. Dorian is a health and caregiving advocate living in College Station, TX. She has a Ph.D. in educational human resource development. Dorian also founded I Start Wondering, which encourages people to embrace a life-long learning approach to aging. She teaches Sheng Zhen Gong, a form of Qigong. Follow Dorian on Twitter at @dorianmartin, Facebook or Instagram at @doriannmartin.