Varicose veins are visible, protruding veins that appear just under the skin. The word "varicose" comes from the Latin root varix for "twisted." The veins may occur in clusters that look like spider webs. They may also be large, single veins that are easily visible. They're most often seen on people's legs, especially their calves, and are made up of stretched, expanded, or twisted veins. The blood flow in these veins has been slowed down or reversed.
Between 10% and 20% of the population has some form of varicose veins. They appear between the ages of 30 and 70, and they usually get worse with age.
Varicose veins occur 2 to 3 times more often in women than in men. It is estimated that 50% of people with varicose veins have a family history of the condition.
Causes of Varicose Veins
Doctors aren't sure of the exact cause of varicose veins because of the complex nature of veins, the body's blood circulation system, and other body processes that affect the way veins work.
What's known for sure is that the valves that push blood through the varicose veins stop working properly, causing blood to collect in areas in the veins. The veins then expand and the blood in them begins flowing in reverse. Evidence suggests varicose veins may be veins that are naturally weak, a condition that could be inherited. This could explain why varicose veins seem to run in families.
Other factors can make varicose veins appear or get worse:
- going through a pregnancy
- standing for long periods of time
- being overweight
- age - they appear more often as people grow older
- sex - they are more common in women
More rarely, varicose veins can be symptoms of serious health problems, such as tumours in the pelvis.
Symptoms and Complications of Varicose Veins
Having many visible varicose veins doesn't mean you will be in a lot of pain. You can have a spider-web of raised veins over most of your leg that doesn't hurt a bit. Or you might have only one vein that still manages to cause a lot of discomfort.
People most often experience aching, cramping at night, swelling, and a feeling of fullness in the legs. These symptoms become worse before menstruation or after standing for a long time.
Most people with varicose veins don't suffer from complications. There is some chance of developing ulcerations around the affected veins, or of the vein hemorrhaging (bleeding inside), especially in older people whose skin has become very thin. Eczema and discoloured skin in the area around the affected veins can also occur.