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What to Know About Varicose Veins in the Feet

Reviewed by
Dr. Donald Pelto

The veins in our legs, feet, and ankles can sometimes become swollen and twisted, a condition known as varicose veins.

This happens to many of us as we get older, but it also sometimes occurs even in younger people who suffer from certain medical conditions or are obese. To varying extents, this condition affects nearly 30 percent of adults.

Varicose veins in the feet can often be painful, and even if they are not they can, for cosmetic reasons, be distressing to people who suffer from them.

A less severe condition known as spider veins often appears in conjunction with varicose veins or as a precursor to them. Spider veins are so named because they resemble dark, bluish-colored spiderwebs just below the skin.

Even if they do not cause any discomfort or anxiety over their appearance, spider veins and varicose veins may still be a good reason to see a doctor because they may be a symptom of an underlying condition affecting your circulation.

Varicose Veins

Symptoms of Varicose Veins To Watch For

If you develop varicose veins in your feet, the most obvious symptom will be the visibility of the veins themselves. Your legs and feet may ache and appear swollen, and you may experience some itching.

If the problem becomes severe, you may begin to experience pain in your legs and feet after standing or sitting for long periods. Your skin may begin to thicken and harden, and you may develop sores or skin ulcers, especially around your ankles.

How Varicose Veins Develop

Your circulatory system chiefly comprises arteries—which carry blood from the heart toward the more distant parts of your body—and veins, which return that blood to the heart.

The veins in your legs and feet must fight the force of gravity in order to do their job; they are able to do this because valves inside the veins combine with muscle contractions in your legs to act as pumps to keep the blood moving forward and upward, back to the heart.

These valves open to allow blood to pass through them and shut to prevent it from flowing backward.

If the valves become weak, however, or if the veins themselves begin to lose elasticity, the blood flow can get backed up. Blood can begin to pool in spots within the veins, causing them to swell and become twisted.

Causes and Risk Factors of Varicose Veins

This loss of elasticity in the veins and their valves can happen as we get older, or it can occur as the result of disease. Some people simply have a congenital disposition toward this problem, such as a defect in the valves in their veins.

Pregnancy can also cause varicose veins; when you become pregnant, the volume of blood in your body increases, but blood flow from the legs to the pelvis decreases in order to provide circulatory support for the baby—resulting in varicose veins.

Some female hormones can relax the walls of the veins, which exacerbates the problem. (For this reason, women are more prone to varicose veins than men.)

Obesity is another frequent contributor to the problem of varicose veins in the feet and legs. Carrying extra weight can put extra pressure on the veins, causing them to work harder than they would otherwise have to. People whose jobs require them to sit or stand for prolonged periods are also at risk.

Other possible causes and risk factors include:

  • Family history
  • Birth control pills
  • Menopause
  • Hormonal therapy for menopause
  • Frequent wearing of tight clothing, especially pants, undergarments, and shoes
  • Various diseases of the heart, liver, or circulatory system

Treatment for Varicose Veins in Your Feet

Varicose veins are common—as noted earlier, they affect nearly three out of ten adults—and they rarely constitute a serious medical condition in themselves. If your varicose veins are causing you pain, however, or if their appearance is distressing to you, there are ways they can be treated.

The most conservative treatment for varicose veins in the feet and legs is compression therapy, which involves wearing specially fitted compression stockings that exert pressure on the legs and feet, reducing the diameter of the varicose veins and improving blood circulation.

Other treatments for varicose veins in the feet include:

  • Sclerotherapy, which involves the injection of a sclerosing solution into the affected veins, causing them to collapse and vanish
  • Laser therapy, which is more effective for the treatment of spider veins than for treating larger varicose veins
  • Endothermal ablation, in which heat is used to seal the damaged veins

In severe cases it may be necessary to consider surgery. In most cases, varicose veins in the feet and legs can be removed without seriously compromising circulatory function because the deeper veins are responsible for returning 90 percent of the blood to the heart.

Preventing Varicose Veins – Is it Possible?

There is little we can do to prevent varicose veins as we get older, especially if we are genetically predisposed toward them. We can minimize their severity, however, and some of us may be able to avoid them entirely by losing weight and getting more exercise.

If possible, try to avoid sitting or standing for too long; if your job requires you to sit at a desk all day, try to remember to take a few moments every hour to move around.

Medical References:

    Cleveland Clinic The British National Health Service National Institutes of Health The Mayo Clinic

This page was last updated on October 1st, 2015

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