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Varicose Veins - Causes And Prevention

Updated on March 20, 2013
Very serious case of varicose veins
Very serious case of varicose veins | Source

Varicose veins

Medical researchers have estimated that about 3 in 10 adults will develop varicose veins, making varicose veins a very common condition. They are usually found in the lower leg region, but can occur in other areas of the body. For most people varicose veins are not a sign of any underlying disease and may develop without any known cause.

The word varicose means abnormally swollen or enlarged, so in order to understand more fully how a vein becomes swollen, we'll first of all look at a healthy vein and how it works.


The veins are blood vessels that take de-oxygenated blood back to the heart en route to the lungs to pick up more oxygen. Veins are generally divided into three types:

  • Superficial - these are the veins that you can see just under the skin and they often easy to feel. These are the type of veins that usually become a varicose vein.
  • Deep - these veins are situated deep within the muscles and you can't see or feel them.
  • Perforators - these are tiny veins that act as connections between the deep underlying veins and the superficial ones.

Because as humans we stand upright, due to gravity, the blood in our legs would run back down into our feet. Therefore there are some mechanisms that prevent this from happening:

  • The natural action of body muscles contracting and relaxing pushes blood through the veins.
  • Veins also have a serious of valves that close the vein temporarily to prevent the blood from going back down.

This is the normal working of a healthy vein, so lets have a look at what happens when a person develops a varicose vein.

Diagram showing a normal vein and one that has become a varicose vein.
Diagram showing a normal vein and one that has become a varicose vein. | Source
Leg ulcers can be a complication of varicose veins.
Leg ulcers can be a complication of varicose veins. | Source

Varicose vein development

As we can see from the diagram above, normal veins are a regular shape with smooth walls and strong valves. When you see a varicose vein it not only looks swollen but frequently has a knotted or twisted appearance. They are also generally blue-purple in colour. This is due to the pooling of blood that stretches the vein wall. The reason we can see them is because varicose veins tend to occur just under the surface of the skin.

Often you will also see tiny veins that seem to form a spider or star-like pattern, but these are not proper varicose veins.These spider veins can be caused by a back-up of blood but also injury, too much exposure to the sun and hormones.

When the wall of the vein becomes weak in a section it stretches and becomes larger. If this weakness occurs near to a valve, this can become damaged, causing leakage of the blood backwards. This can start off a chain reaction as the leaking blood puts more pressure on the vein and other valves so they too become weaker and damaged. When blood continues to become stagnant in the vein it begins to bulge and its shape can become distorted as with the knotted effect we see in some varicose veins.

Factors that may cause varicose veins:

  • It's probable that more women than men will suffer from varicose veins at some time. In addition, family history of the condition may make it more likely for a person to develop varicose veins.
  • Overweight - the more you pile on the pounds the more stress is put onto the veins so increasing the risk of damage and varicose veins developing.
  • Age - when we get older the risk of varicose veins increases.
  • Jobs - it has long been believed that jobs that involve standing for long periods of time will cause varicose veins. However, some scientific research suggests that there is no proof of this. Nevertheless, when people do have varicose veins, standing for long periods of time generally makes the pain worse.
  • Pregnancy - varicose veins may develop due to the extra weight being carried by the mother and the pressure of the baby. In addition, hormones related to pregnancy are also believed to be a risk factor in developing varicose veins. For most mothers, the varicose veins that develop usually return to normal after the birth. However, for women who have a few pregnancies, varicose veins may become permanent.
  • Other medical conditions - these may lead to the development of varicose veins. For example there are rare conditions where the blood vessels have not developed properly and these lead to the formation of varicose veins. In addition, swelling or tumours in the lower pelvic region can cause congestion of the veins at the top of the legs. Also, if a person has suffered from a previous injury to a vein or has had a blood clot then varicose veins may develop in this area.

Some people don't have any symptoms when they have varicose veins but others may experience:

  • Very heavy feeling in the legs that is uncomfortable.
  • Aching of the legs and there may also be a burning sensation and throbbing.
  • Itchy skin that is also dry and delicate over the area.
  • Swollen feet and ankles.
  • Muscle cramps - these frequently occur at night time.

In addition, there can sometimes be complications when you have varicose veins so we'll take a look at these now.

Tips on varicose vein prevention

(click column header to sort results)
Prevention Tips  
1. Keep your weight within normal range.
2. Regular exercise keeps the circulation in the legs healthy - walking and running are two of the best.
3. Elevate your legs for a while when resting.
4. Avoid sitting with your legs crossed for long periods of time as this may lead to damage.
5. Wearing low heeled shoes helps to exercise the leg rather than high heels.
6. Eating less salt in the diet helps to reduce swelling and fluid retention.

Complications and prevention of varicose veins

The majority of people who have varicose veins, won't develop complications. Most of the problems arise from increased pressure on the smaller veins that causes damage to surrounding tissues and skin. Normally these issues will only appear a few years after varicose veins have developed. In addition, the size of the varicose vein is not an indication that complications will develop and there are no clear pointers as to who will have medical issues with them.

The Most Common Complications:

The following is a list of the most commonly reported complications that may arise due to varicose veins:

  • Changes in the skin noticed over the varicose vein site. These changes can include discolorations, red and thickened skin (lipodermatosclerosis), eczema, venous ulcers.
  • Chronic venous insufficiency can develop over a period of time where the blood flow is diminished and causes interference with the delivery of oxygen and nutrients, as well as taking waste matter and carbon dioxide away. This can lead to conditions such as those described above - venous ulcers, eczema and lipodermatosclerosis.
  • Thrombophlebitis - this is basically an inflammation that develops in the varicose vein.
  • Swelling of the lower foot and leg, (oedema) due to vein congestion.
  • In rare cases the varicose veins may start to bleed and this can be potentially life threatening.

Emergency procedure for a bleeding varicose vein:

  1. Lie down flat and raise the leg as high as you can - it must be higher than the rest of the body, so use a chair or other object to rest the leg against in order to keep it elevated.
  2. Using a clean cloth or dressing put this around the area that is bleeding and keep pressure on it for at least 10 minutes.
  3. If the bleeding does not stop or if it's very heavy call the emergency services immediately.
  4. If the bleeding does stop, you must next make an appointment with your doctor so that they can check the area for likely further bleeds.

There are various treatments for varicose veins that should be discussed with your doctor. However, if you are in the UK and you want varicose veins removed for cosmetic reasons, this is rarely carried out on the NHS and you would need to go to private health care. Treatment will usually be started if there are complications arising from varicose veins and/or to ease the symptoms.

Your doctor may advise on some of the following:

  • Compression stockings. These are very tight fitting stockings that basically squeeze the legs so helping to increase circulation as well as giving support. Many people do find them beneficial especially in relieving pain but other people don't. According to the NHS UK, medical research carried out on the benefits of using compression stockings had mixed results, but this could have been due to people being reluctant to wear them or being unable to use them properly.
  • Surgery - stripping and litigation is the main method used for removal of the varicose vein. Once removed the veins that are left in the area take over the role of the vein that has been removed. This procedure is often very painful for a period of time following the operation.
  • Sclerotherapy - this involves injecting a chemical into the affected veins causing scarring that seals them closed. The varicose veins begin to fade after a few weeks and other veins in the area take over the role of the sealed vein. However, this procedure is usually only suitable on small to medium sized varicose veins.

You can carry out some treatment at home for your varicose veins and these include:

  • Exercising
  • Leg elevation
  • Avoid standing for long periods.

However, don't use home therapy as an alternative to seeing a doctor. Speak to your doctor first about your concerns and then discuss how effective the home therapy is likely to be for your circumstances.

I hope that you've found something useful in the hub on varicose veins. As always, this hub is for information only and not a substitute for medical advice.


Submit a Comment

  • profile image


    5 years ago

    This is a very informative and well- presented Hub, and a pleasure to read. I m sure it will be of great interest, as it is a very common concern! I have them, but no symptoms like pain. Just annoying.

  • Seeker7 profile imageAUTHOR

    Helen Murphy Howell 

    5 years ago from Fife, Scotland

    Hi Teaches12345, many thanks for stopping by and glad that you found the job useful.

    I've looked after a couple of patients who had bleeding varicose veins and it's not pleasant at all. Thankfully they did make a fully recovery.

  • teaches12345 profile image

    Dianna Mendez 

    5 years ago

    I was feeling a little pain reading about the bleeding of varicose veins, didn't know this happened. Your advice is good and one I will keep in mind. I do exercise and maintain a healthy diet, hopefully this will keep them away. Thanks.

  • Seeker7 profile imageAUTHOR

    Helen Murphy Howell 

    5 years ago from Fife, Scotland

    Hi Graham, lovely to hear from you and many thanks for leaving a comment.

    I lost my Mum a lot of years ago and she did have a varicose vein that developed at about 45 years. Although she didn't have any bother with it - no pain, nothing. But she was sure it did develop due to the long hours as a nurse - never really getting a chance to sit down at times. Science researchers say there is no proof that being on your feet a lot causes varicose veins, but I know a few nurses, including Mum, who did have them, so maybe that speaks for itself? I'm like you that, at least not yet, I don't have varicose veins and I hope it stays like that!

  • old albion profile image

    Graham Lee 

    5 years ago from Lancashire. England.

    Hi Helen. Thank you for yet another informative hub. I am fortunate not to be troubled with varicose veins, but well remember my mother did, many years ago. Thank you.


  • Seeker7 profile imageAUTHOR

    Helen Murphy Howell 

    5 years ago from Fife, Scotland

    Hi moonlake, many thanks for stopping by. Yes, there are people like your Mum who develop varicose veins but no one is quite sure why. There might be a genetic link that has skipped you and your sisters, so it might be the case that your Mum's Gran had them as well. But it might just be the way your Mum's circulatory system worked and her chemical make-up - but it's very odd how some people do get them and yet not others. Thankfully, I don't have them either. A friend of mine does have them and her legs can be very achy some days so she has to sit down and put her legs up high on a chair to get relief.

  • moonlake profile image


    5 years ago from America

    My mom has had varicose veins as far back as I can remember they looked just like most of your pictures. I never had them and none of my sisters have them. She has always been a skinny person so I have no idea what caused hers. Her mother didn't have them. Voted up on your interesting hub.

  • Seeker7 profile imageAUTHOR

    Helen Murphy Howell 

    5 years ago from Fife, Scotland

    Hi Frank - as always lovely to hear from you and glad that you enjoyed the hub! Blessings to you as well!

  • Seeker7 profile imageAUTHOR

    Helen Murphy Howell 

    5 years ago from Fife, Scotland

    LOL!! Hi Rasma, you made me laugh with your story about your Mom!! I was saying to Rosemay I don't have them either thank god, just one or two of the spiders!

  • Seeker7 profile imageAUTHOR

    Helen Murphy Howell 

    5 years ago from Fife, Scotland

    Hi Rosemay, lovely to hear from you and glad that you enjoyed the hub. Yes I've known people who have had the vein stripped and were in agony. One guy I worked with got it done and he told me he was taking double the paracetamol that you should because of the pain - paracetamol was all a doctor he had seen would give him. So I told him to see a different doctor and tell him the truth. Luckily the doctor was great and didn't get onto him for overtaking paracetamol. So he gave him stronger pain killers along with anti-inflammatories and that helped a lot.

    I don't have them either thankfully, but yes, the spiders are there! LOL!

  • Frank Atanacio profile image

    Frank Atanacio 

    5 years ago from Shelton

    wow seeker7 the first picture shook me to the core thank you for explaining the cause of V.V :) bless you

  • Gypsy Rose Lee profile image

    Gypsy Rose Lee 

    5 years ago from Riga, Latvia

    Thank you for sharing this interesting and most useful hub. I am lucky no varicose veins but I do remember my dear mom showing me where I had kicked her so many times while little me was in her tummy that she developed varicose veins on her thighs. Passing this on.

  • Rosemay50 profile image

    Rosemary Sadler 

    5 years ago from Hawkes Bay - NewZealand

    A well presented article giving both symptoms and causes and very useful for anyone suffering with varicose veins. You give some great advice on how to prevent them.

    I have known a couple of men who had their vein stripped way back when and they were both laid up for quite some time, but I believe it is a lot easier nowadays.

    Luckily I only have a couple of small spiders.

    Voting UP - U, A & I


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