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Varicose veins

Read about the causes of varicose veins

What are veins?

Veins are blood vessels. They have the role of carrying blood from the organs and tissues back to the heart. At any one moment, veins contain well over 50% of blood found in the body.

3 types of veins can be identified in the legs:

  • Superficial leg veins lie just below the surface of the skin - you may sometimes see these veins even if they are normal. Superficial veins are the ones that may develop into varicose veins.
  • Deep leg veins are surrounded by muscles and connective tissue which helps ‘pump’ blood in the veins back to the heart. Just as with superficial veins, deep veins have a system of one-way valves to help the flow of blood moving in one direction.
  • Perforator veins (small communicating veins) connect superficial leg veins to the deep leg veins

Varicose veins

Varicose veins are damaged veins and can be found anywhere in the body. However, the ones we commonly speak of as varicose veins are those that develop in the legs.

Varicose veins are caused when superficial veins lose their elasticity. Blood accumulates within the veins, causing swelling and discomfort. These damaged veins appear swollen, blue or purple through the skin. They may also have a bulging, lumpy or twisted appearance. The thickened or swollen parts of veins are sometimes known as varicosities.

Veins in the leg most likely to become varicosed are in the calf area and the inside of the thigh. Legs are the primary location for varicose veins because of the force of gravity and associated pressure of body weight.

In comparison with other veins in the body, leg veins have a tougher job as they carry blood back to the heart, against the pull of gravity when one is standing, as well as having to cope with more pressure.

What causes varicose veins?

In a healthy superficial leg vein, blood flows smoothly towards the heart. Backward flow is prevented by a series of small valves.

However, for a number of reasons, veins can lose their elasticity. When this happens, the valves become damaged or weaken, allowing blood to flow backwards and the vein swells. This causes further damage to the valves, making the situation worse.

When standing, this back flow of blood puts pressure on veins in the lower legs. This is the reason that often, varicose vein symptoms start in the calves.

Who develops varicose veins?

It is estimated that around 3 in 10 people may develop symptoms of varicose veins in their lifetime. Varicose veins can occur in both men and women of any age, but are more common as one gets older.

The tendency to develop varicose veins appears to run in families. In addition, they are more likely to develop during pregnancy or with conditions where there is an increased pressure in the abdomen, such as with chronic constipation, obesity or urinary retention (a constant full bladder) from an enlarged prostate.

However, most often, varicose veins appear for no obvious cause. They are more likely to develop if you are on your feet all day, especially if you are standing rather than walking. Also, carrying extra weight means you are more likely to suffer from varicose veins.