When To Be Concerned About Your Varicose Veins

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Let’s be honest for a moment. When most of us think about getting our varicose veins or spider veins treated, we think of it as fixing a cosmetic issue. We don’t think of varicose veins as something that can impact our overall health, causing pain, discomfort and even limiting our ability to comfortably participate in seemingly simple day to day tasks. In some cases, leaving varicose veins untreated may lead to even more serious health concerns, which we will discuss later in the blog.

Let’s be clear! Varicose veins are not “just cosmetic”. In fact, treatments for varicose veins are often considered “medically necessary” and are covered by most major insurance companies. There are some telltale signs that show there is more going on underneath the skin’s surface (literally). Before we discuss these common signs that it’s time to seek treatment for your varicose veins, let’s get back to the basics.

What are varicose veins?

So, what is a varicose vein? Veins are tasked with picking up the carbon dioxide and waste products from the cells and carrying them back toward the heart and lungs. To do so, veins must fight gravity by using a series of one-way valves and the contraction of your muscle which occurs when you walk and move. These actions move venous blood flow up and out of the legs. When this system fails, blood begins to pool in the veins, unable to efficiently travel out of the legs. Over time, this pooling and backflow stretches out the vein wall and creates the bulging, twisted veins you may know as varicose veins.

animation of a healthy and unhealthy vein

Common risk factors for varicose veins include, but are not limited to:

  • Family history: Thank your mom, dad, grandpa or grandma. If another family member has had varicose veins you are much more likely to develop them too.
  • XX chromosomes: Due to hormonal changes throughout life, pregnancy and menopause, women are at a much higher risk than men to develop varicose veins. In fact, 1 in 3 women in the USA have varicose veins.
  • Pregnancy: Due to the increase in blood volume during pregnancy and the large fluctuations in progesterone levels women are at a higher risk of having varicose veins with each subsequent pregnancy.
  • Injury: Car accidents, sport injuries and even surgeries can cause damage to veins and eventually lead to varicose veins.
  • Standing or sitting for an extended period of time: If we consistently sit or stand without moving for extended periods of time, the venous flow is unable to get out of the leg properly and can cause damage to the vein wall. Over time this damage can cause varicose veins to develop.
  • Age: Vein disease is progressive. As we age, the disease process only gets worse.
  • Obesity: Being overweight adds additional pressure on your veins, which can over time, increase your risk of varicose veins.

Signs that your varicose veins need attention from an expert

So, you think you or a loved one may suffer from varicose veins, but aren’t sure when you should get in touch with your primary care physician or vein specialist to discuss your concerns? If you experience any of these leg symptoms, it is probably time to pick up the phone and give them a call.

  • Heaviness
  • Aching/pain
  • Burning/throbbing/itching
  • Muscle cramping, particularly once in bed for the night
  • Swelling, particularly near the ankles
  • Skin discoloration below the knee, particularly closer to the ankle
  • Nonhealing wounds (ulcers), particularly located on the inside of the leg near the ankle.
  • Severe and continuous pain and swelling
  • Spontaneously bleeding varicose vein (often occurs following a bump or while shaving)
  • Varicose veins that are red, warm and tender to the touch
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If left untreated, varicose veins can lead to more serious health concerns

Don’t ignore these warning signs from your body! While the majority of people only experience minor discomfort with their varicose veins, in rare cases ignoring some of these symptoms can lead to more serious vein and health issues such as:

  • Phlebitis: Inflammation of the superficial veins leading to blood clotting, pain and discomfort
  • Deep vein thrombosis: Also known as DVT or a blood clot in the veins of the leg that carry blood flow directly back to the heart. This can lead to swelling and pain in the leg.
  • Pulmonary embolism: Also known as a PE occurs when a blood clot breaks off and goes to the lungs. It can be a serious condition that permanently damages the lungs and can be fatal.
  • Lymphedema: Lymphedema can be caused by many factors, one of them being varicose vein disease.
  • Cellulitis: If you suffer from lymphedema, you can then develop cellulitis. Cellulitis is an infection in the soft tissue of the skin. When normal veins become varicose veins, the associated inflammation and damage can also lead to damage of the lymphatic system which presents as leg, foot, and toe swelling.
  • Skin changes: Skin changes causing inflamed itchy rashes (dermatitis) as well as leathery skin that turns a reddish brown and can leak yellow fluid (venous statis dermatitis) can happen as well.
  • Skin ulcers: A breakdown in skin causing a non-healing or poorly healing wound.

Be your own advocate! The earlier you diagnose and treat a vascular issue the better the results. The first step is to schedule a consultation with a vein specialist.

What are you waiting for?

Medically Reviewed by

Megan O'Mahony
APRN, FNP-BC
Megan O'Mahony is a board-certified family nurse practitioner at Vein Clinics of America. She earned her degrees in Nursing, Biology and English from Loyola University Chicago. She also received her Master of Science degree in Nursing: Family Nurse Practitioner and she is currently pursuing her PhD in Nursing at Loyola University Chicago. Megan specializes in providing best-in-class treatment through ultrasound-guided foam sclerotherapy, patient education, clinical history-taking and physical examination.

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