Varicose veins are cosmetically unsightly. The large, colored, ropy protrusions that form primarily on the legs and feet mar the appearance of your skin. But they’re actually more than just a cosmetic concern; they can directly affect both your vein and overall health.
Cardiologists Dr. Adnan Aslam and Dr. Roy Norman see patients at Northwest Houston Heart Center, which serves the greater Houston, Texas, area. The doctors and their staff are concerned about their patients’ circulatory system health, including the varicose veins on your legs. Here’s what they have to say about how and why these large veins are problematic.
How and why varicose veins form
Your heart has the unenviable task of supplying your entire body with oxygenated, nutrient-rich blood. To do this, it requires two sets of conduits to carry the blood: the arteries from the heart to the body, and the veins from the body back to the heart. The problem with the venous system, though, is it has to work against the pull of gravity. That requires a couple of “fixes.”
The first is using muscle contractions. Since the vein walls are elastic, muscle contractions in the calf and thigh squeeze them, pushing the blood forward.
The second is the use of tiny, one-way valves that close as soon as the blood passes by, preventing backflow. Unfortunately, the valves can be damaged through injury or the force of high blood pressure. If the valves are unable to fully close, blood flow becomes sluggish, and blood pools in the vein, causing it to stretch and twist. If this happens in surface veins, they protrude through the skin — varicose veins.
When blood flow becomes sluggish, it’s known as chronic venous insufficiency (CVI), since the flow is insufficient to meet the body’s needs. Almost 40% of Americans experience CVI during their lives.
While varicose veins are unquestionably a cosmetic issue, they can also be painful and itchy and make your legs ache. In addition, they can set you up for later stages of vein disease that produce more health complications that are harder to treat.
Varicose veins: more than a cosmetic concern
If you don’t treat CVI, and by extension varicose veins, you’re more at risk for the following conditions.
Vein damage and bleeding
When a vein becomes varicose, it can leak fluid into the surrounding tissue, leading to redness, warmth, itchiness, and swelling (edema). The skin directly over the vein can also thin out, so that a hard scratch or a bang to your leg may rupture the vein, causing significant bleeding.
Small blood clots can develop in veins close to the skin’s surface that have insufficient blood flow, causing the vein to feel hard, hot, swollen, and tender. It’s not as dangerous as deep vein thrombosis, but superficial thrombophlebitis still requires medical attention to prevent the clot from breaking off and damaging surrounding tissues.
Deep vein thrombosis (DVT)
DVT occurs when blood clots form in the deep leg veins. The clot can worsen venous insufficiency, but the primary cause for concern is if a piece or a whole clot breaks free. It then travels through the bloodstream, entering the lungs and potentially blocking your airway. This condition is called a pulmonary embolism (PE), and it’s a life-threatening emergency. Call 911.
A later stage of vein disease causes painful, slow-healing skin ulcers on your lower legs and ankles. Since blood flow remains insufficient, it can’t deliver healing factors to the site quickly enough, and the ulcers can easily become infected. Having diabetes is one risk factor for CVI, and some diabetic lower-limb amputations begin with a venous ulcer.
Have you developed varicose veins? Then it’s time to come into Northwest Houston Heart Center for an evaluation and treatment to prevent complications. To get started, give us a call at any of our locations — Tomball, Cypress, Magnolia, and The Woodlands, Texas — or book online today. You can also text us at 832-402-9518.