Varicose veins are swollen, bulging veins that protrude from the surface of the skin, often with a blue or purplish color. They commonly have a rope-like or cord-like appearance on the skin.
Varicose veins are extremely common, affecting up to 15 percent of men and up to 25 percent of women in the United States.
The word ‘varicose’ comes from the Latin root ‘varix’ which means twisted. While veins anywhere in the body can become varicose, the areas most affected by varicose veins are the legs (often on the backs of calves or inside of legs). This is due to the larger pressure exerted on these veins from sustained standing, walking or other factors. An example of painful varicose veins found elsewhere in the body is hemorrhoids, which are simply varicose veins found in the anus. While varicose veins are often unsightly and do cause cosmetic concerns, they can cause very significant symptoms and also be indicative of underlying vein disease, which may progressively get worse if not treated.
WHAT CAUSES THEM
Blood circulates through the body and the extremities via a system of arteries (which carry blood away from the heart) and veins (which carry the blood back). To facilitate the return trip of blood towards the heart, veins have a series of one-way valves. As we age (and due to a series of other risk factors including heredity, pregnancy, obesity etc.), these valves can begin to fail, allowing blood to flow backwards. This often occurs as the elasticity in the vein wall weakens, the vein distends, and the valve leaflets can no longer function properly.
When this valve failure (or venous reflux) occurs in veins of the leg, the blood flows backwards (or back down the leg) and pools in the veins of the lower leg. This increased blood pressure causes the veins to bulge or swell, and may cause fluid to leak outside the vein (causing generalized swelling in the ankles and feet).
Since the blood in these veins is deoxygenated, it often makes the varicose veins appear blue in color. Without treatment, this increased pressure within the legs can progress to cause additional valve failure (causing the varicose veins to ‘grow’ up or down the leg), skin color changes, and in its worst case, non-healing venous ulcers.
Painful varicose veins can be treated with a number of safe and effective options. Only a trained vein specialist can determine the extent and severity of any vein disease you may have, so consult with a physician to learn more.