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Varicose Veins

Varicose veins

Definition

Varicose veins are dilated, tortuous, elongated superficial veins that appear most often in the legs.

Description

Varicose veins, also called varicosities, are seen most often in the legs, although they can be found in other parts of the body. Most often, they appear as lumpy, winding vessels just below the surface of the skin. There are three types of veins: superficial veins that are just beneath the surface of the skin; deep veins that are large blood vessels found deep inside the muscles; and perforator veins that connect the superficial veins to the deep veins. The superficial veins are the blood vessels most often affected by this condition and are the veins that are visible when the varicose condition has developed.

The inside walls of veins have valves that open and close in response to the blood flow. When the left ventricle of the heart pushes blood out into the aorta, it produces the high pressure pulse of the heartbeat and pushes blood throughout the body. Between heartbeats, there is a period of low blood pressure. During this period blood in the veins is affected by gravity and wants to flow downward. The valves in the veins prevent this from happening. Varicose veins start when one or more valves fail to close. The blood pressure in that section of vein increases, causing additional valves to fail. This allows blood to pool and stretch the veins, further weakening the walls of the veins. The walls of the affected veins lose their elasticity in response to increased blood pressure. As the vessels weaken, more and more valves are unable to close properly. The veins become larger and wider over time and begin to appear as lumpy, winding chains underneath the skin. Varicosities can also develop in the deep veins. Varicose veins in the superficial veins are called primary varicosities, while varicose veins in the deep veins are called secondary varicosities.

Causes & symptoms

Varicose veins have a number of different causes; lifestyle and hormonal factors play a role. Some families seem to have a higher incidence of varicose veins, indicating that there may be a genetic component to this disease. Varicose veins are progressive; as one section of a vein weakens, it causes increased pressure on adjacent sections of the vein. These sections often develop varicosities. Varicose veins can appear following pregnancy , thrombophlebitis, congenital blood vessel weakness, or obesity , but they are not limited to these conditions. Edema of the surrounding tissue, ankles, and calves is not usually a complication of primary (superficial) varicose veins. When edema develops, it usually indicates that the deep veins may have varicosities or clots.

Varicose veins are a common problem. More than 80 million Americans experience the symptoms and complications of varicose veins, including 10%15% of men and 20%25% of women. The symptoms can include aching, pain , itchiness, or burning sensations, especially when standing. In some cases, with chronically bad veins, there may be a brownish discoloration of the skin or ulcers (open sores) near the ankles. A condition that is frequently associated with varicose veins is spider-burst veins. Spider-burst veins are very small veins that are enlarged. They may be caused by back-pressure from varicose veins, but can be caused by other factors. They are frequently associated with pregnancy and there may be hormonal factors associated with their development. They are primarily of cosmetic concern and do not present any medical concerns.

Diagnosis

Varicose veins can usually be seen. In cases where varicose veins are suspected, a physician may frequently detect them by palpation (pressing with the fingers). The physician will examine the veins while the patient is first in a standing position and a second time while the patient is lying down. X rays or ultrasound tests can detect varicose veins in the deep and perforator veins and rule out blood clots in the deep veins. A handheld Doppler instrument is now the preferred diagnostic tool for evaluating the leg veins.

Treatment

There is no cure for varicose veins. Treatment falls into two classes: relief of symptoms and removal of the affected veins. Symptom relief includes such measures as wearing support stockings, which compress the veins and hold them in place. This pressure keeps the veins from stretching and limits pain. Other measures include sitting down, using a footstool to support the feet when sitting, avoid standing for long periods of time, and raising the legs whenever possible. These measures work by reducing the blood pressure in leg veins. Prolonged standing allows the blood to collect under high pressure in the varicose veins. Exercise such as walking, biking, and swimming, is beneficial. When the legs are active, the leg muscles help pump the blood in the veins. This limits the amount of blood that collects in the varicose veins and reduces some of the symptoms but does not stop the disease.

Herbal therapy can be helpful in the treatment of varicose veins. Essential oils of cypress and geranium or extracts from horse chestnut seeds (Aesculus hippocastanum ) are massaged into the legs, stroking upwards toward the heart. Application to broken skin and massage directly on the varicose veins should be avoided. Horse chestnut may also be taken orally and biothavenoids are used to increase vascular stability. In late 2001 a new product derived from aescinate, a chemical found in horse chestnut, was approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for topical use in the treatment of varicose and spider veins. The new product, sold under the name of Essaven gel, reduces edema. It can be applied underneath support hosiery if desired.

Drinking fresh fruit juices, particularly those of dark colored berries (cherries, blackberries, and blueberries) can help tone and strengthen the vein walls. The enzyme bromelain , found in pineapple juice, can aid in the prevention of blood clots associated with the pooling of blood in the legs.

Deep breathing exercises performed while lying down with the legs elevated can assist gravity in circulating blood from the legs. The flow of fresh blood into the legs can help relieve any pain.

Allopathic treatment

Surgery can be used to remove varicose veins from the body. It is recommended for varicose veins that are causing pain or are very unsightly, and when hemorrhaging or recurrent thrombosis appear. Surgery involves making an incision through the skin at both ends of the section of vein being removed. A flexible wire is inserted through one end and extended to the other. The wire is then withdrawn, pulling the vein out with it. This is called "stripping" and is the most common method to remove superficial varicose veins. As long as the deeper veins are still functioning properly, a person can live without some of the superficial veins. Because of this, stripped varicose veins are not replaced.

Injection therapy is an alternate therapy used to seal varicose veins. This prevents blood from entering the sealed sections of the vein. The veins remain in the body, but no longer carry blood. This procedure can be performed on an out-patient basis and does not require anesthesia. It is frequently used if people develop more varicose veins after surgery to remove the larger varicose veins and to seal spider-burst veins for people concerned about cosmetic appearance. Injection therapy is also called sclerotherapy. At one time, a method of injection therapy was used that did not have a good success rate. Veins did not seal properly and blood clots formed. Modern injection therapy is improved and has a much higher success rate.

Two new allopathic treatments have been developed since 1999 that are much less invasive than stripping the veins. One is called radio frequency closure, or the closure technique. In radio frequency closure, the surgeon inserts a catheter into the varicose vein through a small puncture. The catheter is used to deliver radio frequency energy to the wall of the vein, which causes the vein to contract and seal itself shut. The nearby veins then take over the flow of venous blood from the legs.

The second new treatment is called the endovascular laser procedure. The doctor uses a diode laser wire or fiber that is inserted directly into the vein. Energy transmitted from a laser heats the varicose vein and seals it shut. The patient can go back to work the next day, although a support stocking must be worn for two weeks after the laser procedure.

Expected results

Untreated varicose veins become increasingly large and more obvious with time. Surgical stripping of varicose veins is successful for most patients. Most do not develop new, large varicose veins following surgery. Surgery does not decrease a person's tendency to develop varicose veins. Varicose veins may develop in other locations after stripping.

Prevention

While genetic factors play a significant role in the development of varicose veins, swimming and other exercises to increase circulation in the legs help to prevent varicose veins. Preventive measures are especially important during pregnancy, when the additional weight of the fetus and placenta can exert pressure on the mother's legs and feet.

Resources

BOOKS

Alexander, R.W., R. C. Schlant, and V. Fuster, eds. The Heart, 9th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1998.

Berkow, Robert, ed. Merck Manual of Medical Information. Whitehouse Station, NJ: Merck Research Laboratories, 1997.

Larsen, D.E., ed. Mayo Clinic Family Health Book. New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1996.

PERIODICALS

Altizer, James W. "Varicose Veins: A Primary Care Update." Patient Care 35 (October 30, 2001): 33.

Belcaro, G., A. N. Nicolaides, G. Geroulakis, et al. "Essaven Gel: Review of Experimental and Clinical Data." Angiology 52 (December 2001): S1-S4.

"New Noninvasive Procedures Treat Leg Veins Problems." Medical Devices & Surgical Technology Week (December 9, 2001): 16.

Kathleen D. Wright

Rebecca J. Frey, PhD

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Varicose Veins

Varicose Veins

Definition

Varicose veins are dilated, tortuous, elongated superficial veins that are usually seen in the legs.

Description

Varicose veins, also called varicosities, are seen most often in the legs, although they can be found in other parts of the body. Most often, they appear as lumpy, winding vessels just below the surface of the skin. There are three types of veins, superficial veins that are just beneath the surface of the skin, deep veins that are large blood vessels found deep inside muscles, and perforator veins that connect the superficial veins to the deep veins. The superficial veins are the blood vessels most often affected by varicose veins and are the veins seen by eye when the varicose condition has developed.

The inside wall of veins have valves that open and close in response to the blood flow. When the left ventricle of the heart pushes blood out into the aorta, it produces the high pressure pulse of the heartbeat and pushes blood throughout the body. Between heartbeats, there is a period of low blood pressure. During the low pressure period, blood in the veins is affected by gravity and wants to flow downward. The valves in the veins prevent this from happening. Varicose veins start when one or more valves fail to close. The blood pressure in that section of vein increases, causing additional valves to fail. This allows blood to pool and stretch the veins, further weakening the walls of the veins. The walls of the affected veins lose their elasticity in response to increased blood pressure. As the vessels weaken, more and more valves are unable to close properly. The veins become larger and wider over time and begin to appear as lumpy, winding chains underneath the skin. Varicose veins can develop in the deep veins also. Varicose veins in the superficial veins are called primary varicosities, while varicose veins in the deep veins are called secondary varicosities.

Causes and symptoms

The predisposing causes of varicose veins are multiple, and lifestyle and hormonal factors play a role. Some families seem to have a higher incidence of varicose veins, indicating that there may be a genetic component to this disease. Varicose veins are progressive; as one section of the veins weakens, it causes increased pressure on adjacent sections of veins. These sections often develop varicosities. Varicose veins can appear following pregnancy, thrombophlebitis, congenital blood vessel weakness, or obesity, but is not limited to these conditions. Edema of the surrounding tissue, ankles, and calves, is not usually a complication of primary (superficial) varicose veins and, when seen, usually indicates that the deep veins may have varicosities or clots.

Varicose veins are a common problem; approximately 15% of the adult population in the United States have varicose veins. Women have a much higher incidence of this disease than men. The symptoms can include aching, pain, itchiness, or burning sensations, especially when standing. In some cases, with chronically bad veins, there may be a brownish discoloration of the skin or ulcers (open sores) near the ankles. A condition that is frequently associated with varicose veins is spider-burst veins. Spider-burst veins are very small veins that are enlarged. They may be caused by back-pressure from varicose veins, but can be caused by other factors. They are frequently associated with pregnancy and there may be hormonal factors associated with their development. They are primarily of cosmetic concern and do not present any medical concerns.

KEY TERMS

Congenital Existing at or before birth; a condition that developed while the fetus was in utero or as a consequence of the birth process.

Edema Swelling caused by a collection of fluid in a tissue or body cavity.

Hemorrhage Bleeding from blood vessels.

Palpation The process of examining a patient by touch.

Diagnosis

Varicose veins can usually be seen. In cases where varicose veins are suspected, but can not be seen, a physician may frequently detect them by palpation (pressing with the fingers). X rays or ultrasound tests can detect varicose veins in the deep and perforator veins and rule out blood clots in the deep veins.

Treatment

There is no cure for varicose veins. Treatment falls into two classes; relief of symptoms and removal of the affected veins. Symptom relief includes such measures as wearing support stockings, which compress the veins and hold them in place. This keeps the veins from stretching and limits pain. Other measures are sitting down, using a footstool when sitting, avoiding standing for long periods of time, and raising the legs whenever possible. These measures work by reducing the blood pressure in leg veins. Prolonged standing allows the blood to collect under high pressure in the varicose veins. Exercise such as walking, biking, and swimming, is beneficial. When the legs are active, the leg muscles help pump the blood in the veins. This limits the amount of blood that collects in the varicose veins and reduces some of the symptoms. These measures reduce symptoms, but do not stop the disease.

Surgery is used to remove varicose veins from the body. It is recommended for varicose veins that are causing pain or are very unsightly, and when hemorrhaging or recurrent thrombosis appear. Surgery involves making an incision through the skin at both ends of the section of vein being removed. A flexible wire is inserted through one end and extended to the other. The wire is then withdrawn, pulling the vein out with it. This is called "stripping" and is the most common method to remove superficial varicose veins. As long as the deeper veins are still functioning properly, a person can live without some of the superficial veins. Because of this, stripped varicose veins are not replaced.

Injection therapy is an alternate therapy used to seal varicose veins. This prevents blood from entering the sealed sections of the vein. The veins remain in the body, but no longer carry blood. This procedure can be performed on an out-patient basis and does not require anesthesia. It is frequently used if people develop more varicose veins after surgery to remove the larger varicose veins and to seal spider-burst veins for people concerned about cosmetic appearance. Injection therapy is also called sclerotherapy. At one time, a method of injection therapy was used that did not have a good success rate. Veins did not seal properly and blood clots formed. Modern injection therapy is improved and has a much higher success rate.

Prognosis

Untreated varicose veins become increasingly large and more obvious with time. Surgical stripping of varicose veins is successful for most patients. Most do not develop new, large varicose veins following surgery. Surgery does not decrease a person's tendency to develop varicose veins. Varicose veins may develop in other locations after stripping.

Resources

BOOKS

Alexander, R. W., R. C. Schlant, and V. Fuster, editors. The Heart. 9th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1998.

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varicose veins

varicose veins A varix or varicosity is an irregularity or lumpiness. In the body, this means irregularities caused by dilated and distorted veins.

Veins in the legs have valves which normally prevent any backflow of the blood on its way towards the heart. The pressure of the blood tending to distend these veins is greater than in veins elsewhere simply because, for most of most people's waking hours, they are lower than the rest of the body, and vertical. This can put a considerable strain on the valves, each of which supports the column of blood immediately above it, between it and the next valve further up. In ideal normal circumstances the blood is kept moving upwards effectively because of persistent squeezing of veins by actively contracting muscles as we walk about, as well as by other mechanisms which tend continually to draw the blood towards the chest. The superficial veins just under the skin benefit less directly than the deep ones from leg movements — but because they connect to the deep veins, squeezing by the muscles helps to siphon blood from those near the surface, as well as ‘milking’ it up the deep ones.

Thus gravity does not normally cause an accumulation of weighty blood in our lowest parts, as it would in, say, a liquid-filled bicycle inner tube suspended vertically. But there are less than ideal circumstances which cause relative stagnation, particularly in the superficial unsupported veins; blood then leans more heavily on the valves, and in some cases these become damaged and develop leaks. This can occur if there is an obstruction to blood flow up from the legs (such as a heavily pregnant uterus pressing on the veins in the pelvic cavity) and the problem is exacerbated by sitting or standing still. As for many bodily dysfunctions, there is no doubt a combination of innate propensity (weak veins and valves) and risk factors (flow obstruction and immobility). The leakage of valves in turn leads to the irregular bulges on the veins which are known as varicosities, along with enlargement and distortion. The sluggishness imposed on the circulation to the skin and underlying tissues by back pressure from these veins predisposes to discomfort, ulceration, and oedema.

Applying pressure by support stockings to keep the varicose veins from filling is the first line of treatment. But the veins which are affected are fortunately usually dispensible: if they are removed, blood can flow through alternative deeper channels. Effective surgical treatment involves making cuts only at the top and the bottom of the offending vein, which is then removed by using a ‘stripper’. From the top end (say at the knee) a thin flexible rod is passed down the vein to the far end (say at the ankle). The vein is tied around the rod, which has a knob on its end. Pulling from the top then causes the knob to draw the whole length of the vein up before it, ‘crumpling’ it as it comes. Thus the vein is pulled by the stripper from under the skin and out through the upper incision.

A similar problem can occur at other sites. In the lower end of the oesophagus, ‘varices’ may result from back pressure associated with liver disease. In the scrotum a ‘varicocoele’ is a swelling of the veins around the testis. Haemorrhoids represent a comparable condition of the anal veins.

Sheila Jennett


See also blood circulation; blood vessels.

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varicose vein

varicose vein, superficial vessel that is abnormally lengthened, twisted, or dilated, seen most often on the legs and thighs. Varicose veins develop spontaneously, and are usually attributed to a hereditary weakness of the vein; the valves in the vein that keep the blood circulating upward toward the heart are usually incompetent. Increased pressure from long standing or exertion, or internal factors such as pregnancy, or lessened support by the tissues surrounding the veins that occurs with aging and obesity causes the weakened veins to dilate. Mild varicosities often cause no discomfort. Persons with more severe cases may develop swelling of the legs, ankles, and feet, and local eczema or ulcers. Mild varicosities may be treated with rest, elevation of the legs, and the use of elastic bandages or stockings. In severe cases surgical treatment may be necessary. Traditional surgery involves tying off and removing a vein segment. Varicose veins may now also be treated without removing them through an endoscopic surgical procedure that uses the heat produced by radio waves or a laser to seal off the veins. Varicose veins that occur around the rectum are called hemorrhoids, and those that form in the scrotum are called varicoceles.

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Varicose Veins

Varicose Veins

What Are Veins and Arteries?

Where Do People Get Varicose Veins?

What Is the Treatment for Varicose Veins?

Resource

Varicose veins are veins that become stretched, enlarged, or twisted. They can often be seen on the legs, just below the surface of the skin, and they may give legs a lumpy appearance.

KEYWORDS

for searching the Internet and other reference sources

Circulatory system

Vascular system

What Are Veins and Arteries?

The body has two systems for carrying blood to and from all its cells, tissues, and organs. Arteries carry blood from the heart to the organs, and veins return blood back to the heart. Although veins and arteries are similar in structure, veins usually carry blood with less oxygen than arteries do, and vein walls are thinner and weaker than arterial walls. When veins become injured or empty, they sometimes dilate* or collapse and become varicose*.

* dilate
(DY-late) means to become enlarged or stretched beyond the usual boundaries.
* varix
, varices, varicose are the Latin words that describe veins, arteries, or lymph vessels that have become stretched or enlarged.

Where Do People Get Varicose Veins?

Varicose veins develop on the inside areas of the leg or on the back of the calf. The veins look bluish in color and may become swollen, which gives the leg a lumpy appearance. About 15 percent of adults in the United States develop varicose veins. Women sometimes develop varicose veins during pregnancy and develop them more often than men do. There is a tendency for varicose veins to run in families.

What Is the Treatment for Varicose Veins?

Many people with varicose veins have no symptoms, but some people feel pain in their legs, especially when they stand for long periods of time.

Mild cases

In mild cases, doctors usually suggest that people with varicose veins exercise to improve circulation and that they wear support hose or stockings around the swollen veins to help relieve pain. People with varicose veins are usually told to sit with their feet up as often as possible and to avoid standing for prolonged periods of time.

Severe cases

When people have more severe cases of varicose veins, doctors sometimes inject a solution into the vein to block it. The body then reroutes the blocked veins blood supply to nearby veins that are healthier. Sometimes doctors strip varicose veins, which means they remove them surgically. This process takes about 30 minutes and is often quite successful.

Resource

The U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) has a search engine at its website that locates information about varicose veins at the U.S. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) and elsewhere. http://www.nih.gov

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varicose veins

varicose veins (va-ri-kohs) pl. n. veins that are distended, lengthened, and tortuous. The superficial veins of the legs are most commonly affected; other sites include the oesophagus (see oesophageal varices) and testes (see varicocele). There is an inherited tendency to varicose veins but obstruction to blood flow is responsible in some cases. Treatment includes elastic support and sclerotherapy, but stripping, excision, or laser treatment is required in some cases. Medical name: varices.

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varicose veins

varicose veins Condition where a vein becomes swollen and distorted. Varicose veins can occur anywhere in the body, but are commonly found in the legs.

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