Varicose Veins Patient Information Fact Sheet

What are varicose veins?
A varicose vein is an enlarged, twisted vein, usually occurring in the leg. The formation of a varicose vein is caused by an obstruction within the vein, which causes it to swell. Varicose veins become visible and may bulge, and tiny capillaries can overfill, causing purple discoloration. Varicose veins can occur anywhere on the leg but are often found behind the knee or in the groin. There is often an inherited tendency to varicose veins and twice as many women as men tend to be affected. They can appear at any time but become more frequent with age.

What are the symptoms of varicose veins?
The problems caused by varicose veins are not purely cosmetic although they are often unsightly. They can cause pain and discomfort and may itch. They can also cause a burning or throbbing sensation. After long periods of standing, swelling may occur. Sometimes in more severe cases, a vein can become inflamed (thrombophlebitis) or bleeding from a superficial vein (a vein near the surface of the skin) may occur.

What causes varicose veins?
Leg veins contain one-way valves that aid the return of blood to the heart. If there is increased resistance to blood flow in the leg because of pressure, the valves can become damaged and leaking may occur. Any leaked blood flows in the wrong direction, that is away from the heart and back down the leg, and causes the superficial veins to stretch and bulge.

There tends to be an inherited predisposition to developing varicose veins although other factors may influence whether or not they actually develop. Increase in age may be a risk factor because, as you age, your veins may decrease in elasticity causing them to stretch. Occupations that require people to stand for prolonged periods of time (e.g., hairdressing, nursing) put people at greater risk of developing varicose veins if they have a genetic predisposition. Pregnancy can often cause varicose veins, but in most cases, these are temporary and will disappear a few months after the baby is born. Being very overweight puts increased pressure on the legs and can increase the likelihood of developing varicose veins.