Varicose veins are enlarged and distorted veins in the legs that are visible through the skin.
NORMAL VEINS & VARICOSE VEINS
The role of veins is to carry blood back from the leg to the heart. Some lie just beneath the skin (superficial veins) and some lie deep in the leg beneath the muscles (deep veins). Varicose veins arise from the superficial veins. The leg muscles squeeze the deep veins during walking, pumping blood out of the leg. All of these veins contain one-way valves to ensure that the blood flows towards the heart.
Weakness of the vein wall allows valves in the superficial veins to stretch so that they do not close properly. Blood then flows back into the leg along these veins. The veins and their tributaries enlarge and can be seen on the surface as varicose veins. Raised pressure in these veins encourages the development of spider veins and discoloured areas which look like bruises.
The damaged valves cannot be mended and the best way to cure the problem is to take out the affected veins. All varicose veins are removed leaving only the normal vessels. Blood can no longer flow the wrong way, back into the leg. It is thus perfectly safe and indeed beneficial to remove varicose veins. The removal of varicose veins does not affect blood flow because other veins and especially the deep veins take over this job.
SIGNS AND SYMPTOMS OF VARICOSE VEINS?
Usually varicose veins are obvious due to their visibility especially on standing. They are enlarged and tortuous often bulging beneath the skin. Early symptoms include discomfort, aching, heaviness, fatigue, burning, throbbing and cramps. They may be associated with areas of thread veins on the skin.
If left untreated, irritation of the skin around the ankles with swelling of the feet (worse at the end of the day) and discolouration may occur. Finally, eczema, phlebitis (inflammation of the vein) and ulceration may occur. Large varicose veins are easily damaged by a minor injury resulting in profuse bleeding.
Many people, however, only suffer the cosmetic embarrassment of visible veins.
WHO GETS VARICOSE VEINS?
This common condition runs in families and may affect 60% of the adult population in western countries. Men and women develop varicose veins to an equal extent, but women more frequently seek treatment. The problem may arise at any time of life, but is more common with increasing age. Prolonged standing, excess weight hormonal medications and pregnancy exacerbate the condition.
See "Varicose Veins Treatments" for further details.
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