For some people, the biggest concern about varicose veins is the way they look. However, a recent study suggests a possible link between varicose veins and more serious health problems involving blood clots in the deeper veins of your legs.
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Douglas Joseph, DO, Director of Cleveland Clinic’s Vascular Medicine Outpatient Department, gives his take on the study’s findings and offers his best advice on how to limit the impact of varicose veins.
Who gets varicose veins?
Varicose veins are abnormal blood vessels that typically develop in your legs and feet. They look like bulging, twisted clusters of blue or purple veins. Faulty valves and increased pressure in your legs can cause vessel walls to weaken and veins to swell and protrude, Dr. Joseph says.
Both women and men can get varicose veins. They are more likely to develop as you age. And they’re fairly common — some estimates say between 30 and 50 percent of adults may develop them.
Risk factors include:
- Family history of varicose veins.
- Being overweight.
- A job that requires a lot of standing.
- Birth control pill use.
- Hormone replacement therapy.
What are the symptoms?
If you’re like most people, you don’t have any symptoms, or you only have minor symptoms, Dr. Joseph says.
“Most of the time, varicose veins aren’t a serious problem; they’re really more of a nuisance,” he says.
However, they may make your legs ache or feel heavy, tired or itchy. They may bother you more at the end of the day — especially if you were on your feet a lot.
And, in some cases, the condition can lead to more serious health issues, he says.
When can varicose veins spell trouble?
Recent research suggests that those who have varicose veins are more likely to develop deep vein thrombosis or a pulmonary embolism.
Deep vein thrombosis occurs when a blood clot forms in one of the deep veins in your body. It can cause leg pain and swelling, or might not cause any discomfort at all.
If a blood clot breaks away and travels to your lungs, it is known as a pulmonary embolism. This is a life-threatening condition that requires immediate medical attention. Symptoms may include chest pain and shortness of breath.
“The study is observational, but it did seem to suggest an association between having varicose veins and the formation of blood clots deep in the leg,” Dr. Joseph says. “But more research is needed to verify the findings.”
What should you watch for?
- Increased swelling or pain in your legs. This may signal a more serious problem — especially if these symptoms come on suddenly, Dr. Joseph says.
- Brownish skin discoloration on your legs or veins that are red, hot or painful.
Contact your doctor if you have either of these symptoms.
Keep the blood flowing to control varicose veins
Your best bet for preventing varicose veins or keeping them in check is to stay active, Dr. Joseph says.
He recommends moderate exercise such as cycling, running or swimming four or five times per week. He also suggests maintaining a healthy body weight (aim for a body mass index of 25 or less).
“Once you have varicose veins, wearing compression hose during the day can help symptoms by improving blood flow in the veins,” he says.
Elevating your legs after prolonged walking or standing can also help improve blood flow.
If you try these tips and continue to have bothersome symptoms, ask your doctor about low-risk procedures that can help relieve varicose veins.