Dr. Randy Martin: Many of us think of varicose veins as a cosmetic problem, but they can have serious health consequences. I met with Keith Barrett, M.D., a general surgeon at Piedmont Mountainside Hospital, to learn more about this type of vein and how it can impact your health.
Approximately 20 percent of Americans have varicose veins, the purple or blue twisted or knotted veins that are clearly visible beneath the skin on the legs.
“Varicose veins are large veins that have dilated in the leg and are usually the result of overpressure from failed valves,” says Dr. Barrett. “They can cause pain and swelling, predispose you to having clots in your legs, and can occasionally become infected.”
The development of varicose veins can be caused by a number of factors, including obesity, aging, leg injury, pregnancy, smoking, hormones and heredity.
Varicose veins vs. spider veins
Varicose veins are often confused with spider veins, but they are actually quite different. Spider veins are typically smaller and form a sunburst pattern.
“Spider veins are actually inside the skin and are usually very tiny,” he explains. “Varicose veins are larger and deeper veins that will cause clinical problems, such as ulcers.”
Blood in the veins travels in one direction, from the part of the body where they are located back to the heart. Because veins don’t have the pressure of the arterial system, they contain valves to assist the one-way flow, explains Dr. Barrett.
Common Causes and Symptoms of Varicose Veins
“Varicose veins are certainly more common in women,” he says. “About 20 percent of people are affected by this problem and women get them twice as often as men.”
Being overweight can cause pressure on the veins in the pelvis, which leads to varicose veins. Women especially have a tendency to develop varicose veins during pregnancy. Once the valves fail, they have a hard time reestablishing themselves.
Symptoms of varicose veins include aching or heaviness in the legs, color changes in the skin, sores and/or rashes.
“The first thing that we do is put compression devices, like compression stockings, on the legs, which assists your normal muscle action to help get the blood back [to the heart],” Dr. Barrett explains. “In severe cases, we actually close off the large vein that runs the full length of the leg. This forces all the blood into the deeper system and away from the varicosity, so it will eventually compress.”
In severe cases, a surgeon may use the VNUS Closure to treat the condition.
“There is a catheter we insert using an ultrasound device and we watch it go in the entire length of the vein and know exactly where it is,” he says. “A radiofrequency is applied to that catheter and it causes the vein to scar down and seal off. It prevents blood from backing up and filling those varicose veins.”
When to see a physician
If you are having pain in your legs that cannot otherwise be explained, swelling and/or wounds that won’t heal, you should see a doctor, says Dr. Barrett.
“It could be an arterial problem that needs to be checked out in a completely different way,” he says.
Dr. Randy Martin: As you can see, varicose veins can be much more than a cosmetic issue. For more information, visit Piedmont Healthcare’s Vascular Disease page.