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What to know about varicose veins and how to send them packing

Lisa Fogarty

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Lisa Fogarty

Lisa Fogarty has written numerous articles for USA Today, The Stir, Opposing Views and other publications. She has covered everything from red carpet events to the discovery of toxic PCBs on school windows. She lives on Long Island, N.Y....

A prominent vascular surgeon explains the myths and facts about varicose veins

They can pop up unexpectedly — while you're pregnant or after you've been working at a sedentary job for several years — but, more than likely, it's because of genetics. Varicose veins, the deep blue or purplish veins that bulge from beneath our skin in areas such as our legs and feet, are a concern for millions of people — not just because they're unsightly but also because they can be uncomfortable and sometimes even painful.

“Varicose veins are veins that have become dilated or bulging because of valve failure,” says Dr. Kathleen Gibson, a board-certified vascular surgeon practicing at Lake Washington Vascular, who has authored or co-authored articles for publications such as Journal of Vascular Surgery, Phlebology and Journal for Vascular Ultrasound, as well as several book chapters. “They form between the muscle and the skin and appear as a visible bulge under the skin, sometimes with a faint blue color. Valves are thin membranes inside veins that keep blood flowing from the feet toward the heart. When these one-way valves fail, blood can flow in the wrong direction in between heartbeats and pool in your leg veins. This can cause increased pressure in the vein, dilation and pain."

The most common symptoms of varicose veins are heaviness, aching, throbbing, swelling and itching, Gibson says, and up to 10 percent of people with varicose veins will develop more severe problems, such as swelling, changes in the color and texture of the skin, and even open sores.

“The most common risk factor for varicose veins is having a parent with varicose veins,” Gibson says. “Other than heredity, in most cases there is no definitive cause for varicose veins. Two people could have the same lifestyle, diet and medical history, and one person could end up developing varicose veins, and the other may not.”

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Varicose veins are more common in women, most likely because they're associated with pregnancy, Gibson says. And although they aren't a sole cause of varicose veins, obesity, weight gain and spending long periods of time on your feet can exacerbate the condition.

Which leads to Gibson's next point: There are three common myths out there about varicose veins. The first is that it's simply an aesthetic problem and isn't actually a health condition that can cause a great deal of pain. The second misconception Gibson says she comes across is that people think varicose veins only occur in people who are overweight or obese. And the third is that crossing your legs can cause varicose veins. "There is no evidence to support this idea," Gibson says.

Unfortunately, there are no proven, reliable prevention methods for varicose veins. "Your lifestyle, overall health and family history all play a part but are not direct causes of varicose veins," Gibson says. "If you have varicose veins or a strong family history of varicose veins, however, you can decrease your chances of having severe varicose veins by maintaining a healthy weight and having a regular exercise routine."

If you've already developed varicose veins, don't throw in the towel and assume you have to live with them forever. Gibson says there are several groundbreaking and effective treatment options out there to consider.

“In the past several years, new procedures for varicose veins using sclerotherapy have emerged,” Gibson says. “One therapy, called ClariVein (made by Vascular Insights), uses a device that mechanically damages the inner lining of the vein while injecting a sclerotherapy drug to cause vein closure. Another, called Varithena (made by BTG), uses a foam sclerosant that is visible under ultrasound to damage and close the veins.”

The newest treatment for varicose veins is called VenaSeal (made by Medtronic). The Food and Drug Administration approved it in the past year. This minimally invasive procedure uses a specially formulated medical adhesive to close veins in patients with varicose veins, says Gibson, adding that Lake Washington Vascular was involved in clinical trials that led to the approval of both Varithena and VenaSeal. “With VenaSeal, the patient doesn’t need sedation or a local anesthetic except for a single site,” she says. “Patients usually experience less bruising and have a reduced risk of nerve injury than one may see with other treatments. VenaSeal is the only major varicose vein treatment that does not require the use of compression stockings as part of the recovery process.”

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All procedures have advantages and disadvantages, and you should discuss your options with a doctor before proceeding. As far as costs are concerned, Gibson says treatments can vary from hundreds of dollars to several thousand dollars, and the various procedures might require more than one treatment session.

Whether you're searching for ways to rid your body of varicose veins because of the way they look, feel or both, it's reassuring to know that with a bevy of treatment options available one will be perfect for you. And that you can probably cross your legs without worrying about varicose veins.

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