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Definition

Varicose veins are gnarled, enlarged veins. The word "varicose" comes from the Latin root "varix," which means "twisted." Any vein may become varicose, but the veins most commonly affected are those in your legs and feet. That's because standing and walking upright increases the pressure in the veins in your lower body.

For many people, varicose veins and spider veins — a common, mild and medically insignificant variation of varicose veins — are simply a cosmetic concern. For other people, varicose veins can cause aching pain and discomfort. Sometimes the condition leads to more serious problems. Varicose veins may also signal a higher risk of other disorders of the circulatory system.

Varicose veins are a common condition in the United States, affecting up to 15 percent of men and up to 25 percent of women. Treatment may involve self-help measures or procedures by your doctor to close or remove veins.

Symptoms

Some people with varicose veins don't experience any discomfort from the condition. When painful signs and symptoms do occur, they may include:

  • An achy or heavy feeling in your legs, and burning, throbbing, muscle cramping and swelling in your lower legs. Prolonged sitting or standing tends to make your legs feel worse.
  • Itching around one or more of your veins.
  • Skin ulcers near your ankle, which represent a severe form of vascular disease and require immeiate attention.

Varicose veins are dark purple or blue in color and may appear twisted and bulging - like cords. They commonly appear on the backs of the calves or on the inside of the leg. However, they can form anywhere on your legs, from your groin to your ankle.

Spider veins are similar to varicose veins, but they're smaller. Spider veins are found closer to the skin's surface and are often red or blue. They occur on the legs, but can also be found on the face. Spider veins vary in size and often look like a spider's web or a tree branch.

Causes

Arteries carry blood from your heart to the rest of your tissues. Veins return blood from the rest of your body to your heart, so the blood can be recirculated. To return blood to your heart, the veins in your legs must work against gravity. Muscle contractions in your lower legs act as pumps, while toned, elastic vein walls help blood return to your heart. Tiny one-way valves in your veins open as blood flows toward your heart then close to stop blood from flowing backward.

As you get older your veins can lose elasticity, causing them to stretch. The valves in your veins may become weak, allowing blood that should be moving toward your heart to flow backward. Blood pools in your veins, and your veins enlarge and become varicose. The veins appear blue because they contain deoxygenated blood, which is in the process of being recirculated.

Some pregnant women develop varicose veins. Pregnancy increases the volume of blood in your body, but decreases the flow of blood from your legs to your pelvis. This circulatory change is designed to support the growing fetus, but it can produce an unfortunate side effect — enlarged veins in your legs. Varicose veins may surface for the first time or may worsen during late pregnancy, when your uterus exerts greater pressure on the veins in your legs. Hemorrhoids are varicose veins located in and around the anus.

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Risk Factors

These factors increase your risk of developing varicose veins:

• Age. Aging causes wear and tear on the valves in your veins that help regulate blood flow. Eventually, that wear causes the valves to malfunction.

• Sex. Women are more likely than men are to develop the condition. Hormonal changes during pregnancy, premenstruation or menopause may be a factor. Female hormones tend to relax vein walls. Taking hormone replacement therapy or birth control pills may increase your risk of varicose veins.

• Genetics. If other family members had varicose veins, there's a greater chance you will too.

• Obesity. Being overweight puts added pressure on your veins.

• Standing for long periods of time. Your blood doesn't flow as well if you're in the same position for long periods.

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Complications

Extremely painful ulcers may form on the skin near varicose veins, particularly near the ankles. Ulcers are the result of long-term "water logging" of these tissues, caused by increased pressure of blood within affected veins. Brownish pigmentation usually precedes the development of an ulcer. See your doctor immediately if you suspect you've developed an ulcer.

Occasionally, veins deep within the legs become enlarged. In such cases, the affected leg may swell considerably. Any sudden leg swelling warrants urgent medical attention because it may indicate a blood clot — a condition known medically as thrombophlebitis.

Seeking Medical Advice

Self-help measures can help you ease the pain of varicose veins and may prevent them from getting worse. But if you're concerned about how your veins look and feel and self-care measures haven't stopped your condition from getting worse, see your doctor.

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