If you have varicose veins, or spider veins, in your legs, you might consider them an embarrassing cosmetic problem and nothing more. The reality is that those unsightly marks under the skin could actually be a sign of venous disease.
What is venous disease?
Venous disease occurs when the veins — or some of the veins — are no longer able to function properly. This usually occurs in the extremities, like the legs, where blood is furthest from your heart.
The body has two major types of blood vessels: veins and arteries. Arteries are relatively thick, muscular tubes, that contract to push blood away from your heart and through all of the tissues in your body, and back to your heart again.
Veins are relatively thin tubes that contain valves instead of muscles. Veins don’t contract to push blood back toward your heart--they rely on momentum, muscle contractions and a series of valves to keep the blood flowing in the right direction instead. When those valves fail, blood can flow backward (reflux) and pool in the parts of your body furthest form your heart, which are usually the legs. As the blood pools, it causes the veins to bulge and become varicose or spider veins.
In addition to varicose and spider veins, you could also experience:
- Heavy or tired-feeling legs
- Swelling in your legs and ankles
- Changes in skin color – your legs might darken, or look reddish, you could also have patches of discoloration
- Leg sores that don’t heal properly
What are the causes of venous disease?
Sitting for long periods can lead to venous disease. Walking around causes your leg muscles to squeeze the veins and help push the blood back to your heart. When you sit for long periods, your veins don’t contract and release, which causes blood and fluids to pool. This is explains why your feet tend to swell on long flights or road trips.
Sedentary lifestyles are linked to venous disease. Your veins not only rely on your leg muscles but on all the muscles in your body, including your diaphragm, to keep blood moving in the right direction.
Age and heredity can lead to venous disease as well. Some people have a genetic predisposition towards vein issues. Also, it’s natural for your veins to weaken as you age, especially if you are also sedentary. For these reasons, vein issues may crop up as you grow older.
How can I improve my vein health?
Exercise - The best way to maintain and improve your vein health is through exercise. You don’t need to start running marathons, or join an exercise boot camp to make a difference--you just need to get moving. In fact, just 30 minutes of movement a day is enough. Things you can try:
- The next time you go shopping, park farther away from the entrance than normal, and make one or two circuits of the store instead of heading straight for the items you need. Together, those changes can easily add up to 30 minutes of walking.
- Take frequent breaks to get up from your desk and walk around your office. If you have a job where you are tied to your desk, stand up and march in place for five minutes. Do that six times and that’s half an hour.
- If you can, eat lunch at your desk and then take a short walk during your actual lunch break.
- Turn on some music when you get home and dance around for a while.
Diet - Maintaining a healthy diet can go a long way in improving your vein health. Try to make these healthy changes:
- Avoid foods that are rich in sodium. They can cause fluid retention, which can put more strain on your veins.
- Drink plenty of water. Staying properly hydrated can actually prevent you from retaining water.
- Fruits, vegetables, unsalted nuts and seeds have antioxidants, like vitamins C, E and K, which help maintain your veins, so replace salty or unhealthy snacks with these choices.
You can also help improve your circulation by elevating your legs for several minutes each day. You can lie on the floor with your legs up the wall, or lie on the couch with your feet resting on the arms, or elevated by pillows so that they are above the level of your heart.
What are the treatments for venous disease?
Here is a list of procedures and management solutions you can take advantage of treat and/or prevent the onset of varicose veins.
- Compression Stockings: Compression stockings mimic the action of the leg muscles by squeezing the veins to encourage blood flow. These garments are good for the early stages of vein disease, and as a preventative measure for those who are not able to be active enough.
- Sclerotherapy: Sclerotherapy treats the walls of varicose and spider veins to harden them and cut off blood flow. This reduces the appearance of the spider and varicose veins and closes of those with faulty valves.
- Laser Therapy: Similar to sclerotherapy, except it uses laser light to close off the veins.
- Endovenous Therapy: Uses a catheter to close off veins deeper beneath the surface of the skin.
- Vein Surgery: Used when the veins are too large to respond to sclerotherapy, and similar treatments. Your doctor might surgically remove the faulty section of the vein (known as vein stripping).