Varicose veins

Written by: 
Dr Roger Henderson

What are varicose veins?

Varicose veins are widened and twisted veins that usually develop in the legs. The leg veins contain one-way valves that help the bloodA fluid that transports oxygen and other substances through the body, made up of blood cells suspended in a liquid. return to the heart against the force of gravity without allowing the bloodA fluid that transports oxygen and other substances through the body, made up of blood cells suspended in a liquid. to drain backwards. If these valves leak, the increased pressure prevents the bloodA fluid that transports oxygen and other substances through the body, made up of blood cells suspended in a liquid. from flowing properly, and varicose veins develop. These tend to develop with advancing age and often cause no great inconvenience apart from being considered by some to be unsightly.

What causes varicose veins?

The risk of developing varicose veins increases with pregnancy, a family history of the condition and any occupation that involves prolonged periods of standing.

Typical symptoms include heaviness and tiredness in the legs (especially after standing) and the appearance of large, tortuous blue veins that are most easily seen under the skin while standing. These often develop in the back of the calf or on the inside of the leg between the ankle and the groin. Occasionally they may cause night-time cramps, and the legs may become more swollen and painful as the varicose veins worsen. The symptoms may be more intense when a woman is menstruating.

People over the age of 55 are more prone to varicose veins as increasing age is a factor in their development. Women tend to be affected more often than men, with approximately 30 per cent of women developing varicose veins in their lifetime, compared with 15 per cent of men.[1]

When should I see a doctor if I have varicose veins?

If your varicose veins cause you irritation during the day, if standing up or walking causes you discomfort or if your sleep is interrupted because of discomfort, it is advisable to see a doctor to discuss the possibility of receiving treatment.

How are varicose veins treated?

Not everyone with varicose veins will need treatment. For example, if you have no symptoms and your varicose veins do not cause you any discomfort, then it is quite safe to leave them alone.

Advice on easing the discomfort of varicose veins includes:

  • Elevating your legs when resting
  • Wearing lightweight elastic compression stockings for any discomfort. Different types are available, and a health professional will be able to advise on the best type for you. Compression stockings usually have to be replaced every 3-6 months
  • Losing weight if you are overweight.

Sometimes, injecting a chemical mixture called a sclerosing solution into the varicose vein will close it, but if the condition becomes more serious, complete removal of the vein from ankle to groin may be necessary (known as ligation and stripping).

What natural treatments are available?

Some studies have shown that the horse chestnut herb, taken at a dose of 300mg three times a day, may help.[2]

Please note: All herbs should be taken under the direction of a qualified, registered herbalist. Even though these are natural products, side-effects may occur and herbs may interact with medication you are taking. Please also be sure to inform your GP or medical team before you decide to take any herbal remedies or supplements.

References: 
  1. 'Varicose veins'. NHS Choices website. Link. Last accessed 17 January 2010.
  2. Link.