What are varicose veins?
Varicose veins are enlarged veins usually found on the lower extremities of the body (most often on the thighs and calves). They generally appear to be raised and a bit lumpy or twisted, and are dark in color (they often appear blue, purple, or red).(1)
Varicose veins are most common in women who are 50 years or older. By the age of 50, nearly 40 percent of women and 20 percent of men in North America have significant leg vein problems.(2)
Symptoms of Varicose Veins
For some people, varicose veins are purely a cosmetic issue. They may have no symptoms other than the visual appearance of the veins.
In addition to the cosmetic issue of varicose veins, many people experience pain or achiness of varying levels as a result of this condition.
It is also possible to experience a swelling of the legs and or ankles, especially in the evenings. Some people also feel a heaviness in their limbs, due to the fact that their legs are swollen.
Other symptoms include red, dry, itchy areas of skin (due to waste product buildup in the leg), cramps, restless legs syndrome, or light scar-like patches of skin near the ankles.(3)
How Varicose Veins Form
Veins have pairs of valves in them to prevent blood from flowing backward through them. Normally, leg muscles help to pump the veins in the legs to move blood toward the heart (against gravity) to become oxygenated.
Varicose veins form when veins (usually in the legs) start to lose their elasticity. The veins stretch and become enlarged, and this can put extra strain on the valves, which weaken and often stop performing perfectly.
When veins become varicose, their valves don’t meet properly anymore, meaning that they no longer keep the blood flowing only in one direction. This means that blood can then flow back into the legs due to gravity, instead of going up through the body again toward the heart.
This blood then pools in the lower extremities, enlarging the veins, appearing as varicose veins.(4)
Causes and Risk Factors for Varicose Veins
Being obese or gaining a great deal of weight can put you at a higher risk for developing varicose veins. Extra weight puts extra pressure on legs, making blood circulation more difficult and straining the veins and valves.
Sitting or standing for long periods of time can greatly increase the possibility of developing varicose veins.
Veins tend to lose their elasticity as people age, and blood vessel valves can begin to weaken with time. This is part of the reason why it is mostly people over 50 years of age who get varicose veins.
While it is certainly more common to develop varicose veins after the age of 50, it is still possible to develop them when you are younger. Age is not the only factor causing varicose veins, so if you are at risk in any of the other areas mentioned here, it is possible to develop varicose veins long before the age of 50.
There are several factors relating to pregnancy that can contribute to the formation of varicose veins. There is an increase in blood volume, increased pressure on veins in the pelvic region, a decrease in blood flow in legs, and changes in hormones. All of these factors can contribute to varicose veins.
Normally, after giving birth these factors revert back to a more normal level and varicose veins can decrease in severity.
A poor diet can contribute to poor circulation and high inflammation, which can contribute to the development of varicose veins.
See the section “diet” section below for tips on improving your diet to help with varicose veins.
Varicose veins seem to have a hereditary component. If your family members had varicose veins, there’s a higher chance that you will have them as well.(5)
Diagnosis of Varicose Veins
Generally, diagnosis is quite simple, with a doctor being able to diagnose it simply by visualizing the veins.
Doctors may advise that you undergo an ultrasound or angiogram to see if another disorder may be causing any kind of blockage in the veins of your legs.
The Difference Between Spider Veins and Varicose Veins
Although both conditions involve veins that become more visible on the lower extremities of the body, there are several ways to tell them apart.
Spider veins tend to be on the surface of the skin, so they do not appear to be raised or lumpy like varicose veins. They are usually fine and web-like, thus earning their name. They tend to be smaller than varicose veins. Also, spider veins don’t tend to cause pain or discomfort.
Possible Complications Arising From Varicose Veins
Very painful ulcers can form on the skin near varicose veins. This usually happens near the ankles. These ulcers are caused by long-term fluid build-up in the tissues. A discolored spot usually appears before the ulcer forms. If you see a spot you think could turn into an ulcer, see your doctor right away.
Sometimes varicose veins can lead to a blood clot. This will usually cause very quick swelling. See a doctor immediately if you have any sudden swelling near a varicose vein.
Another fairly uncommon complication is bleeding, which can occur if a vein near the surface of your skin bursts. If this happens, you should see a doctor, just in case another vein is at risk of bursting as well.
Also, if you cut or injure your leg, you may experience more severe bleeding than usual, since you have an excess amount of blood pooling in your lower limbs.
Dermatitis/eczema is an inflammation of the skin, causing it to be itchy, red, and have a rash. This can sometimes occur on the legs as a result of varicose veins.
Natural Remedies for Varicose Veins
There are so many natural remedies that people generally like to try before opting for a more serious, surgical procedure to deal with their varicose veins. Many of these natural remedies have been shown to produce excellent results, so they tend to be the first route of action for most people.
Exercise can help varicose veins in many ways. It can improve blood flow, reduce inflammation, lower blood pressure, and help balance hormones. It reduces inactivity, which can be damaging to blood vessels and valves, and can help maintain a healthy weight.
Sitting or standing for too long is a large risk factor for developing varicose veins, so exercise (even very light exercise) can be a great help in reducing this risk. If you do a job where you are standing or sitting for long periods of time, try moving around frequently and stretching often.
The Carolina Vascular Institute recommends leg lifts, calf raises, bicycle legs, and side lunges as some of the best forms of exercise to help with varicose veins.(6)
Walking, swimming, and bicycling are great activities to help relieve pressure in your lower extremities, and to keep you active.
Walking daily and doing light to moderate exercise is the recommended treatment for many instances of varicose veins. Often, just doing those two things can greatly help to reduce pain, heaviness, swelling, and stiffness caused by varicose veins.
If you already have varicose veins that cause you pain and discomfort, be sure to start exercising moderately and increase your exercise intensity slowly.
If you think that you may be at risk of developing varicose veins, exercise is one of the best methods of prevention. Staying active will greatly lower your risk, and can help prevent a wide range of other health conditions as well.
Maintaining a Healthy Weight
Having extra weight puts more pressure on your veins and makes it more difficult for your body to circulate blood (7). A healthy diet and exercise are important to keep your weight at a healthy level.
Whether you are hoping to prevent varicose veins from forming, or looking to treat current varicose veins, maintaining a healthy body weight is important.
Following a healthy diet and doing reasonable amounts of exercise can help you with this goal, and can help not only with varicose veins, but with a multitude of other health issues as well.
Certain essential oils can improve blood flow, lower inflammation, and help with hormone imbalance.
Cypress oil can help improve circulation. Rub 5 drops on the affected area twice a day for a several weeks.
For muscle aches, swelling, and blisters you can use diluted peppermint, tea tree, or lavender to make a compress or you can add one of these oils to your bathwater.
Chamomile can help soothe the skin when you mix it with coconut oil and apply it to your legs before bed.
Be careful with applying anything to your legs if you have ulcers, lesions, or any open wounds on your legs. It’s best to avoid any broken skin when applying anything topically.
As with many health conditions, a healthy diet is a key element in your management and treatment of this issue. A diet high in trans fats, sugar, caffeine, sodium, alcohol, and/or processed foods can contribute to arterial damage, poor circulation, high blood pressure, hormone imbalances, and/or weight gain.
There are many things you can do to improve your diet and reduce your risk of these health issues, thus minimizing the effects of your varicose veins.
Below are a few ways you can adjust your diet to help deal with your varicose veins.
High-fiber foods can prevent constipation, which can cause bloating and increased vein pressure. Some foods that are high in fiber are chia seeds, flaxseeds (which are also high in omega-3), vegetables, fresh fruit, legumes, and whole (ancient) grains.
Foods that are high in antioxidants can greatly help with varicose veins. Vitamin C and vitamin E (found in green veggies and citrus fruits), and flavonoids (which can be found in berries), are high in anti-oxidants and can help strengthen veins and fight inflammation. Vitamin E can also help prevent blood clots, is a natural blood thinner, and is good for your heart.
Natural diuretics can increase urination, reduce water retention, and reduce swelling, all of which can help with varicose veins. They can be found in foods like fresh herbs (parsley is one of the best), dandelion greens, hawthorn, hibiscus, and asparagus. Green and black teas can also function as natural diuretics.
Blood pooling, blood pressure, and leg cramps are symptoms of electrolyte deficiencies (which are often deficiencies in potassium and magnesium). Increasing your magnesium consumption can help with these symptoms, and thus aid with varicose veins. To get more magnesium in your diet, increase your consumption of legumes (beans, peas, and lentils), leafy greens (spinach, swiss chard), and nuts.
Spicy foods like cayenne and curry can help get blood flowing and help with appetite control. Cayenne also has vitamin C and flavonoids and helps protect blood vessel walls. Cayenne can be eaten in food, or consumed by adding ½-1 tsp of powder in water and drinking it.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Omega-3 fatty acids are essential healthy fats that are crucial for heart and blood health. Good sources of omega-3 include fish, flaxseed, chia seeds, beans, tofu, almonds, walnuts, hemp seeds, pumpkin seeds, canola oil, and almond milk.(8)
Apple Cider Vinegar
Apple cider vinegar helps circulation and is anti-inflammatory. It also is an astringent, which helps to shrink veins and restore elasticity. For all of these reasons, it is a great remedy for varicose veins.
You can apply it to the problem area by mixing equal parts of apple cider vinegar and water, dipping a cloth in this solution, and applying it to your skin.
Alternatively, you can add 2 tablespoons of apple cider vinegar to a cup of water and drink it (adding a natural sweetener may help improve the flavor).
Witch hazel is another astringent that helps to constrict veins and improve elasticity. You can ingest it or use it to make a warm compress and apply it to the area with varicose veins. It can also help relieve itchiness and pain.
Most importantly in relation to food, you should strive to eat a healthy, well-balanced diet. Choosing whole foods instead of processed options, limiting unhealthy fats, sugar, and sodium, and eating a wide variety of vegetables will all help you to improve your health and help to alleviate symptoms of varicose veins.
Herbs and Supplements
Bilberry and horse chestnut have both been popular folk remedies throughout history. Among other things, they can help with chronic venous insufficiency, lower water retention, help with circulatory problems, and reduce swelling. Bilberry can be eaten or made into extracts or tea.
Horse chestnut (aesculus hippocastanum) is found to be comparable to compression hose in its ability for vasoconstriction. Its active ingredient is aescin helps to protect blood vessel walls, and can shrink tissues (including blood vessels).
It can also thin the blood, help circulation, and reduce the risk of clot formation. It is anti-inflammatory, acts as a mild diuretic, and reduces pain and swelling.
Horse chestnut bark can be applied to skin, but no part of the plant can be consumed safely. Horse chestnut has a toxic substance called esculin in it that is dangerous to consume.
Commercial forms of horse chestnut don’t have this substance, and can be consumed safely.
People with bleeding problems and pregnant women should avoid horse chestnut because of its blood thinning properties.
Horse chestnut can be made into extracts, creams, lotions, teas, or capsules.
Grape seed extract is an antioxidant filled with flavonoids. It contains rutin, which helps protect blood vessel walls, promotes collagen formation, helps with blood vessel elasticity, and help reduce swelling, aching, and pain.
Rutin can also be found in pine bark, cranberry, hawthorn, and blueberry.
Gentle massage can help with varicose veins. Massage your legs with upward strokes, helping to get the blood flowing upwards and to help flush toxins out of your body. Don’t apply pressure directly on the veins. Use coconut oil or olive oil as massage oil and add essential oil to soothe the skin. Avoid any areas of skin with ulcers or lesions.
Consider seeing a registered massage therapist to get your legs massaged with careful attention to blood and lymph flow.(9)
Mud packs may help to reduce pain, detoxify, tighten, and compress. Do not use mud packs if you have any sores or ulcers on the skin.
Try mixing Epsom salt into your bath and soaking in it for a while. Soaking your legs can be beneficial on its own, and Epsom salts are thought to help to improve blood circulation and to flush out toxins.
Compression stockings are a very common treatment for varicose veins in the legs. These stockings are tight and compress the veins, helping to prevent backflow of the blood, and helping to keep circulation flow more consistent. Keeping your legs, and therefore your veins, compressed allows for less blood to pool in your veins. This means that they will help keep your varicose veins from worsening.
Some people find that wearing regular stockings or knee socks can provide similar relief, and can help you to adjust to having your legs compressed.
Compression stockings can feel a bit uncomfortable in the beginning and difficult to put on, but should not be painful. They tend to provide relief for many people suffering from symptoms relating to varicose veins.
If you are someone who spends a lot of time standing or sitting at your job, it is recommended to use compression stockings while you work.
If you are experiencing more severe symptoms, a doctor may be able to write you a prescription for special compression stockings from a medical supply store. These can be fitted to your size.
Some people try elastic bandages instead of compression stockings. This is not recommended, since it can cut off your circulation, making your varicose veins much worse. The exception to this warning is if your doctor advises you to use them and shows you how to properly use them. Do not attempt to use them without a doctor’s detailed advice.
Other Treatments for Varicose Veins
Some people opt to have varicose veins surgically removed. They can be destroyed with lasers or by injecting chemicals into the vein. Vein stripping is one of the more invasive forms of treatment, and involves a surgery performed with anesthetic, where the vein is removed through an incision. Recovery times are slow for this treatment, but it can be effective.
Sclerotherapy is a process in which a doctor injects small and medium varicose veins with a solution (usually a salt solution). This causes the vein to become irritated, and then it can collapse and stick together, turning the vessel into scar tissue. This sometimes needs to be done more than once before the vein is gone from sight. This process is done without anesthesia, and can be done in your doctor’s office. Your doctor can decide if this treatment is right for you, however it is not recommended for pregnant women.
Varicose veins can be treated surgically without reducing your body’s ability to circulate your blood. They are usually veins on the surface of your skin and are not as crucial in your body’s circulatory system as your deeper veins.
Be sure to discuss any surgical options with your doctor and make sure that you understand the process, recovery time, and expected results, since they tend to vary greatly from treatment to treatment. If possible, view some sample photos of previous patients before and after their surgery. See which surgery option is best for you, or if surgery is even recommended for you.
A Word of Caution
Varicose veins can sometimes be confused with deep vein thrombosis, which can sometimes be life threatening.
Deep vein thrombosis, or DVT, is the formation of a blood clot in a deep vein. This most often takes place in the legs. Symptoms include pain, swelling, redness, warmness, and enlarged veins visible on your skin. A blood clot in your body is dangerous and can move through the body to your lungs, causing a pulmonary embolism.
Because both conditions involve enlarged veins, swelling, and pain, some people with varicose veins may not notice when they are experiencing deep vein thrombosis.
If you notice one leg starting to swell in size and have the above symptoms, go to a doctor to see if you are experiencing DVT.
Final Words on Varicose Veins
A large percentage of the population experiences varicose veins. If you are experiencing any of the related symptoms, there are a wide variety of options for you to try to get relief. Take care of your health, keep moving, eat well, and try some of the natural solutions listed above to see what works best for you. If you are still experiencing symptoms you need help alleviating, find out more about surgical options from your doctor.
[IMG via nlm.nih.gov]