Varicose veins are swollen blue or purple veins associated with severe pain that can occur in any part of the body but generally appear on the legs. They look lumpy, bulging, or twisted. In some cases, they appear as fine blue spider-like veins spread in all directions. If not treated immediately, such veins can burst and bleed causing severe wounds that are difficult to heal. Research says that about 30 per cent of Indian women and 15 per cent of Indian men suffer from varicose veins. However, awareness levels of this ailment and its treatment are abysmally low.
Patients with varicose veins usually seek help at the last minute, perhaps because they are not aware that the condition is curable. Even when they do seek treatment, often they fail to go the correct experts, getting temporary relief [often a result of taking painkillers] as the underlying cause is not addressed. As a result, the pain and disease keep recurring, giving patients the impression that varicose veins are incurable. This is a misconception.
Varicose veins are caused when the valves in the veins don’t work as efficiently as they should. Normally, a series of tiny valves open and close to let the blood flow smoothly to the heart, and prevent it from flowing backwards. If these valves become weak or damaged, blood begins to flow backwards and gets collected in the vein, eventually causing it to be varicose.
Why it happens?
The exact cause is difficult to ascertain. Varicose veins can arise during pregnancy if the growing foetus impededs the flow of blood back from the limbs. Although it may cease after child birth, there is a chance of the condition persisting. Standing for long hours too inhibits the blood’s flow towards the heart. So, it stagnates in the particular vein, stretching it and causing varicose veins.
Damaged valves in the veins allow blood to collect so that the vein walls are stretched until they lose their elasticity and are unable to contract to their normal shape. Our calf muscles are ‘hidden pumps’ of the lower body and a calf muscle pump failure also causes varicose veins. Other factors responsible are being overweight, heredity and taking contraceptive pills.
Symptoms of varicose veins
Common symptoms include pain, burning, throbbing, muscle cramps, and dry and itchy skin over the affected vein. Most of these symptoms seem to worsen at night. However, not all people experience the same symptoms.
Get varicose veins treated as soon as possible to avoid complications such as skin discoloration, and severe ulcers [When a varicose vein is injured or when blood leaks out of the damaged vein, ulcers form. They take months or even years of repeated treatment to heal]. If the pain is unbearable or you seem to have developed some complications, consult a specialist at the earliest.
The treatments available
The type of treatment you receive will depend on your general health, and the size, position, and severity of your condition. Some of the available treatments are:
- Sclerotherapy: Effective in case of small or medium-sized varicose veins, it involves injecting a special chemical into the affected vein. This chemical aids in scarring the veins and seals them closed. For those suffering from large-sized varicose veins, foam sclerotherapy is recommended. It involves injecting a special type of foam into the vein instead of the chemical. Though effective, this treatment can cause side-effects like temporary vision problems, blood clots, headaches, and fainting.
- Surgery: If the varicose veins are very large, they have to be removed surgically. The other veins then take over the role of the damaged veins. Recovery may range from 1 – 2 weeks depending on general health of the patient.
- Radiofrequency ablation: In this method, a small probe that emits radio frequency energy is inserted into the vein. This heats up the wall of the affected vein until it collapses, closing the vein and sealing it shut. This treatment is carried out under local anaesthesia, as it causes much discomfort.
- Endovenous laser treatment: A small catheter is introduced into the vein using an ultrasound scan, a tiny laser is then passed through it and is placed on top of the varicose vein. The laser sends out short bursts of energy that heats the vein and seals it. The laser is then slowly withdrawn using ultrasound scan as a guide, allowing the entire length of the vein to be shut.
- Compression stockings: These stockings when worn, squeeze the legs, improving circulation and easing the pain or swelling. However, it is yet to be proven if these stockings prevent the occurrence of varicose veins altogether or just stop them from getting worse.
Ways to prevent
As the cliche goes, prevention is better than cure. Here’s how you can prevent the occurrence of varicose veins:
- Eat a high-fibre diet, as it reduces your risk of having varicose veins.
- Don’t sit cross-legged or stand for a very long time; it hampers blood circulation in the legs. If you have to, then take a break every half an hour and stretch.
- Keep your legs raised [ideally above the level of your heart] to improve blood flow. Resting your legs on a few stacked pillows helps to ease the pain [good for pregnant women].
- Exercise to keep your legs active and improve circulation. If you have a family history of varicose veins, bend, stretch and take brisk walks to help strengthen your blood vessels.
- Maintain healthy body weight, as well as improve your overall health and fitness.
- Increase your intake of omega-3 fatty acids, as it betters blood circulation and prevents clots from forming.
- Eat lots of fruits and vegetables that are rich in antioxidants. This helps tone the venous wall and make it strong.
- Take supplements of vitamin E for better circulation, as it keeps the blood thin. Taking zinc and vitamin B supplements also helps.