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DEAR MAYO CLINIC: I have several varicose veins in my legs that aren’t bothering me other than how they look. My doctor said they are not harmful, but I’m concerned that they are going to get worse. Does having them mean I am at risk for other health problems? What’s the best way to have them treated?
ANSWER: Most of the time, varicose veins are a cosmetic issue. They typically don’t raise your risk for other medical problems. If you’d like to get rid of varicose veins, treatments are available to close or remove them.
A vein’s job is to return blood that has delivered oxygen to the tissues in your body back to your heart, so it can be resupplied with more oxygen and recirculated. Lack of oxygen in the blood within your veins gives veins the noticeable bluish tint that you see through your skin.
Varicose veins are veins that have become enlarged. Rather than being pumped smoothly through the veins, blood tends to pool in varicose veins, making them bulge out and appear gnarled. Sometimes varicose veins look like cords within your skin. Any vein can become varicose. But varicose veins are most common in the legs and feet because those veins have to work against gravity to return blood to your heart.
Although it sounds like you aren’t experiencing any problems due to varicose veins other than their appearance, they can sometimes become uncomfortable. Some people with varicose veins have an achy or heavy feeling in the legs. Pain associated with varicose veins may flare after sitting or standing for a long time. Burning, throbbing, muscle cramping and swelling in the legs may also happen as a result of varicose veins. If you notice any of these symptoms, talk to your doctor. Also, if you develop sores near your ankle, seek medical attention right away, as that may be a symptom of a more-serious vascular disease.
Even when they don’t cause symptoms, many people want to get rid of varicose veins. You have several options for that. A procedure called sclerotherapy involves injecting a solution into the vein that scars and closes it. After sclerotherapy, varicose veins usually fade within a few weeks. This procedure is most effective on small to medium varicose veins. In some cases, the treatment may need to be repeated for it to be most effective.
For larger varicose veins, your doctor can insert a thin tube, called a catheter, into the vein and heat its tip with a laser. As the catheter is pulled out, the heat destroys the vein by causing it to collapse and seal shut. Lasers can also be used to close off small varicose veins from outside the skin, so no incision is necessary.
Vein stripping is another option. It’s generally used for a long vein that has become varicose. The vein is removed through a series of small incisions. Removing the vein isn’t a problem because other veins deeper in your leg can take on the blood supply that previously ran through that vein.
Before you go ahead with one of these procedures, you may want to try a few self-care steps that can help shrink varicose veins. Exercising regularly, losing weight, avoiding long periods of sitting and standing, and not wearing tight clothes can all help. In some cases, wearing compression stockings can be useful, too. These stockings steadily squeeze your legs. That helps the blood move more effectively through the veins.
Talk to your doctor about the treatment options that best fit your situation. In many cases, varicose veins can be successfully treated. — Thom Rooke, M.D., Cardiovascular Diseases, Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minn.