For many, they are simply a cosmetic concern while for others, they are a source of pain and discomfort and may lead to life-threatening problems when they throw clots, writes Dr BRIGID MONDA.
A varicose vein is an elongated, tortuous vein with incompetent valves that often bulge, throb, feel heavy and can be uncomfortable. Varicose veins are most often seen in the back of the calves or the inside of the legs between the groin and the ankle but they may also be hidden in the deeper calf muscles of the legs.
Veins around the anus can also become varicosed, forming haemorrhoids or ‘piles’. They may also form in the oesophagus for people who have liver cirrhosis.
For many people, varicose veins are simply a cosmetic concern, while for others they are a source of pain and discomfort and may sometimes lead to more serious problems like clots in the varicosed veins.
They may be a sign of other disorders of the circulatory system. The main cause of varicose veins is malfunctioning of the valves of the veins. The affected veins become swollen and twisted. While arteries carry blood from your heart to all the other parts of your body, your veins return this blood to your heart for reoxygenation.
To return blood from your legs back to your heart, the veins in your legs must work against gravity and they accomplish this in several ways, mainly with the help of the muscles in your lower legs which act as an ‘artificial heart’ because their contractions push the blood up through your legs towards the heart.
Risk during pregnancy
The toned, elastic walls of the veins and the small one-way valves in these same veins, which open as blood flows toward your heart and close to stop blood from flowing backward, also help blood return to the heart.
Problems arise when these valves malfunction and can no longer prevent the back flow of blood.
Women are twice as likely as men to develop varicose veins especially during pregnancy when the pregnant uterus obstructs the blood flow back through the leg veins. It also occurs just before menstruation because the female hormones tend to relax the walls of the veins.
They usually appear after the 30 and get progressively worse. If other family members had varicose veins, there’s a greater chance that you too will. Being overweight also puts added pressure on your veins.
Your blood doesn’t flow as well if you’re in the same position for long period.
Check for achy heavy feeling in your legs with burning, throbbing, muscle cramping, swelling and itching. Prolonged sitting or standing tends to make the legs feel worse. You may have enlarged veins readily seen under the skin of your legs and a brownish-grey discolouration on your ankle.
You can develop extremely painful skin ulcers near the varicose veins, particularly around the ankles because the tissues get ‘water logged’ as blood pools in the affected veins.
Blood clots may also form in the varicosed vein, causing severe pain and swelling. If a part of this clot breaks off, it can travel to the chest and cause death. A varicosed vein can also bleed heavily if injured.
An X-ray of the vein, called a Venogram, or a special ultrasound called a Doppler, are used by a doctor to confirm that you do have varicose veins and to check the extent of the problem.
You may get drugs that improve the integrity of the wall of the veins and, if the varicose veins are severe, the doctor injects them with a solution to close them up, forcing your blood to reroute to healthier veins. Or he will carry out stripping, removing the vein through small incisions in the skin.