Varicose Veins: Not Just Unsightly

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Varicose veins affect the lives of an estimated 40 percent of women and tend to surface from age 20 and forward. These blueish, bulging cords are not only a cosmetic nuisance, they can also pose serious health conditions when left untreated.

Formation of Varicose Veins

Heredity, gender, pregnancy and age can all contribute to the formation of varicose veins. Some factors may speed up the development of this disease and make the veins worse. Such factors include pregnancy, prolonged standing in one place, obesity, hormone levels and physical trauma from previous episodes of deep vein thrombosis (blood clots).

Varicose veins occur when the valves in superficial leg veins malfunction or cannot work efficiently. When this occurs, the valve may be unable to close, allowing the blood that should be moving towards the heart to flow backward (called venous reflux). The vein blood becomes stagnate, backs up and pressure builds. Blood then collects in the lower veins causing them to enlarge and become varicose.

Varicose Vein Symptoms

Many people who don’t treat their varicose veins may experience continued symptoms of pain, fatigue and swelling of the legs or ankles. Some varicose veins present without symptoms and just look bad. More advanced medical problems may include hyperpigmentation [stains], lipodermatosclerosis [plastic changes of the skin], venous leg ulcers, spontaneous bleeding, superficial thrombophlebitis, and a potentially life-threatening condition called deep vein thrombosis [DVT].

Consequences of Untreated Varicose Veins

The varicose veins themselves are not responsible for the major damages to the body. Blood that pools in the varicose veins is depleted of oxygen and nutrients. The veins also do not tolerate high pressure well and begin to allow red blood cells and fluid to leak into the tissues of the leg. This fluid leak causes ankle swelling. The red blood cells in the tissues cause chronic inflammation and the skin becomes dark and discolored-iron stains.

When the skin and the fat under the skin are inflamed for years, the tissues become woody and firm. The medical term for this woody, hard tissue is lipodermatosclerosis. A condition that may occur over time, when there is chronic venous insufficiency, is a venous leg ulcer. The ulcers due to varicose veins are painful and difficult to heal. Sometimes the ulcers cannot be healed until the backward blood flow in the veins is corrected.

Superficial thrombophlebitis (ST)
Another possible consequence of untreated varicose veins is spontaneous bleeding from the varicose veins. As the skin over the veins becomes thin, eventually the vein can be exposed to the outside world and be easily injured by clothing, bedding, etc. The blood loss can be significant . Superficial thrombophlebitis (ST) is an inflammation of a vein just below the surface of the skin. The cause of inflammation is not an infection. Rather, inflammation is due to decreased blood flow through the vein, damage to the vein and blood clotting. The features of ST include redness to the skin and a firm, tender, warm vein. Localized leg pain and swelling may occur as well.

Deep vein thrombosis (DVT)
Deep vein thrombosis (DVT), unlike ST, can be associated with significant and serious medical problems. DVT is often first noticed as a “pulling” sensation inthe calf of the lower leg, and it can be quite painful. Symptoms also include associated warmth, redness and swelling. The swelling often extends to above the knee.