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They’re not always just cosmetic!

Varicose veins—also known as spider veins in more mild cases—are a common condition that affects over three million people nationwide each year. Marked by knotty, blue veins that are easily visible at the surface of the skin, they are most commonly found on the legs and ankles. 

“Varicose veins can be unsightly and a cosmetic concern, but they can also be painful and achy,” says Dr. David Phang, vascular surgeon at Geisinger Community Medical Center in Scranton. “Luckily, there are a handful of at-home and in-office treatments available to reduce the visible and physical signs.”

If you’re one of the millions who dread wearing shorts, dresses or skirts, here’s what you need to know about the causes, potential complications and treatment of varicose veins.

What causes varicose veins?

Blood is carried through our bodies using a complex network of arteries and veins. Arteries transport blood from the heart to the rest of our body, while veins return blood to our heart to collect more oxygen and other vital nutrients. This means veins can be pushing blood upwards, against the pull of gravity. 

“Our veins include a system of one-way valves that keep our blood moving upward toward the heart,” explains Dr. Phang. “However, when veins and valves aren’t working as well as they’re supposed to, blood can collect in a section of the vein, weakening it and causing it to stretch and curl from the pressure. That’s a varicose vein.” 

Women are most commonly affected by the condition, which worsens with age as the veins experience wear and tear. The condition is also hereditary, most commonly appearing in those with a family history of vein issues. Patients who are overweight are at an increased risk for developing varicose veins, as extra weight puts additional pressure on the veins. 

“If you have a career where you’re standing or sitting in the same position for a long time, you are also at a greater risk for varicose veins,” notes Dr. Phang, “because movement promotes blood flow throughout our bodies.” 

Potential complications

In some cases, varicose veins are a cosmetic issue that will not cause complications or side effects. However, veins can become painful, achy or form a rash in some areas. 

“The rash some people face because of varicose veins is called stasis dermatitis,” says Dr. Phang. “If this is left untreated, dermatitis can cause bleeding or ulcers from scratching and irritation.”

Varicose veins can also cause superficial thrombophlebitis, a condition where blood clots occur close to the surface of the skin. The clots can cause pain and redness in the area but usually are not life-threatening. 

Severe varicose veins can be linked to deep vein thrombosis (commonly called DVT), a condition that involves the formation of a blood clot in one or more veins. Usually located in the legs, DVT can cause pain, swelling and changes in skin color. If left untreated, DVT can become a potentially life-threatening condition if a piece of the blood clot breaks off and travels through the bloodstream to the lungs, forming a pulmonary embolism.

Treating varicose veins

Upon first noticing varicose veins, you may want to start with at-home treatment options. Frequent exercise and avoiding long periods of not moving are great first lines of defense, as they get your heart pumping and your blood flowing. 

Your doctor may also recommend that you lose weight and elevate your legs. Compression stockings are commonly recommended to promote blood flow. 

If at-home treatments don’t work, Geisinger’s vascular surgeons offer various minimally invasive treatments, including radiofrequency therapy, which uses energy to shrink the veins. Geisinger vascular surgeons are also offering the latest glue therapy for varicose veins which is an essentially painless form of treatment to shrink the veins. Our trained vascular surgeons also offer other surgical treatments depending on the severity of the vein condition. 

For a referral to a caring Geisinger vascular surgeon, call 800-275-6401 or visit Geisinger.org.