Varicose veins

Varicose veins is the medical name given to swollen, dark blue or purple veins which have a lumpy appearance and bulge through the surface of the skin.

They can develop in any vein in the body but are usually seen in the legs, especially the calf muscles.

They affect around 3 out of 10 people in the UK. They tend to affect women rather than men although they occur in both sexes.

(Source: veins)

But, before we enter into a detailed discussion about varicose veins, let"s dispel a few of the myths surrounding varicose veins.

Varicose vein myths

There is often an element of truth in many of these myths which is the case with these varicose vein myths. But things are never black and white as they seem.


Women always develop varicose veins as compared to men. Reality: it appears to be the case that more women than men get varicose veins but they can develop in both sexes. It may be the case that women are more likely to visit their GP about varicose veins which applies to a good many conditions.

The one exception to this is a form of varicose veins called "vaginal varicose veins" which often develop during pregnancy. These appear in the vulva or the vagina itself.

So, women are statistically more likely to have varicose veins but this does not mean all women will do so.

Myth 2

Pregnant women always develop varicose veins.

Reality: whilst it is the case that many pregnant women get varicose veins it is by no means automatic. There are some women who go through pregnancy and childbirth without any problems such as this.

What is often the reason is that a woman has a pre-disposition towards vein problems such as varicose veins and pregnancy triggers this. In other words, there is a high risk of her developing varicose veins at some time in her life irrespective of being pregnant or not.

Myth 3

If you stand for long periods of time then you will develop varicose veins.

Reality: there is evidence to suggest that being on your feet for a long period of time does increase the risk of varicose veins. However, it is reasonable to assume that genetic factors may play a part.

So, if there is a history of varicose veins in your family then this may happen even if you have a job where you are sat down all day. There may be an underlying fault with the valves in your veins which would become apparent at some point in your life.

Standing on your feet all day is likely to exacerbate this and at a quicker rate.

Myth 4

Varicose veins do not require any treatment.

Reality: it is true that most cases of varicose veins do not require treatment. As long as they do not cause any pain or discomfort then they can be left.

But, there are also occasions when it is necessary to undergo treatment for varicose veins especially as there may be a serious underlying cause of these.

Treatment is also advisable if you have a family history of varicose veins; are in pain from varicose veins or have suffered from an inflammation of a vein in the past.

Myth 5

Varicose veins often run in families.

Reality: this is one myth which happens to be true. There are families in which several members develop varicose veins which suggest that there is a genetic link.

So if your parents or a close relative have varicose veins then you may have to resign yourself to the fact that you will develop these as well.

But this is not automatic. There are people who are lucky enough not to develop varicose veins even though there is a history of it in their family.

What it means is that you have a strong chance of doing so and are more at risk then someone with no family history of this. However, it is not definite.

If you are a parent who is concerned that your child/children may develop varicose veins later on in life then try not to worry too much about this. Whilst your children are at greater risk of developing varicose veins as compared to other children, they may be lucky and escape this altogether.

What are varicose veins?

These are thick, knotted veins which are dark blue/purple in colour that are clearly visible on the surface of the skin. These veins often appear to be bulging through the skin and are considered unsightly to look at.

A good way of thinking about these is to compare them to the gnarled roots of a tree.

Varicose veins develop when blood flows back towards the lower part of your body and collects there rather than flowing up towards your heart.

What normally happens is that the blood supply flows up to your heart, fighting against gravity as it does so. It is able to do this by means of tiny valves within the veins which prevent backwards flow or "venous reflux". 

As the muscles of your legs contract they force blood up through the veins and towards the upper half of your body. But it is the valves which have a vital role to play in that they enable the blood supply to move in an upwards direction.

But if the valves stop working then varicose veins occur in a series of 4 stages. These are:

  • Blood flows back into the legs. This causes the vein to expand (dilate) and become swollen. The vein increases in both length and width which distorts its shape.
  • This continues to the extent that the vein becomes so enlarged that a large pouch forms at each bend.
  • Blood supply is affected. This disrupts normal blood flow and causes it to become unstable. In some cases, there is minimal blood flow through the tightest bends in the veins.
  • In severe cases a blood clot forms which causes an inflammation of the vein (thrombosis).

This inflammation can cause ulcers to form on the skin which are unable to heal due to a lack of blood supply in that area. This is usually due to a blockage.

Varicose veins form in the superficial veins of the leg. The superficial veins are those which can be clearly seen underneath the skin which is why varicose veins are easy to see.

These veins are unpleasant to look at from an aesthetic point of view which is why many people seek treatment for them. They do not pose a serious health risk but if you do develop these and they begin to affect your health then seek medical advice.    

Guide to Varicose Veins

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