What are varicose and spider veins?

Varicose veins are abnormal, dilated blood vessels caused by a weakening in the vessel wall. They may appear as swollen, twisted clusters of blue or purple veins. Varicose veins are sometimes surrounded by thin, red capillaries known as spider veins (group of tiny blood vessels located close to the surface of the skin, also called telangiectasias).

Varicose and spider veins can appear anywhere, but most often appear on the legs and in the pelvic area. Most varicose veins develop near the surface of the skin.

Who gets varicose and spider veins?

Varicose veins are common and are usually not a sign of a serious medical problem. Varicose and spider veins are seen more often in women than in men. They become more prevalent with age and have been reported to affect from 30 to 50 percent of the adult population. The incidence varies depending on the group of people who are studied.

What causes varicose and spider veins?

Varicose veins occur when healthy vein walls become weak and the vein enlarges. Blood can “pool” or collect inside the vein. Varicose veins are related to increased pressure in the leg veins or defective valves in the veins.

The exact cause of varicose veins is unknown, but there are a number of factors that contribute to the development of varicose and spider veins. Risk factors for varicose and spider veins include:

Varicose Veins

Varicose Veins

  • Heredity or family history of varicose veins
  • Advancing age
  • Prolonged standing (especially for people who work in occupations such as nurses, beauticians, teachers, factory workers and others)
  • Being overweight
  • Hormonal influences during pregnancy
  • The use of birth control pills
  • Post-menopausal hormonal replacement therapy
  • Prolonged sitting with legs crossed
  • Wearing tight undergarments or clothes
  • A history of blood clots
  • Injury to the veins
  • Conditions that cause increased pressure in the abdomen including liver disease, fluid in the abdomen, previous groin surgery, or heart failure

Other reported factors include topical steroids, trauma or injury to the skin, previous venous surgery and exposure to ultra-violet rays.

When should I call the doctor?

Call your doctor if:

  • Varicose veins make walking or standing painful
  • A sore or tender lump develops on or near a varicose vein
  • You have swelling in the feet or ankles
  • Your leg suddenly becomes swollen and painful
  • Skin over a varicose vein bleeds on its own or when injured
  • You have any other symptoms that cause concern

What are the symptoms of varicose veins?

Some people do not have symptoms but may be concerned about the appearance of the veins. If symptoms occur, they may include:

  • Tiredness, burning, throbbing, tingling or heaviness in the legs
  • Itching around the vein
  • Swollen legs
  • Muscle cramps, soreness or aching in the legs
  • Brown discoloration of the skin, especially around the ankles
  • Leg ulcers

Symptoms usually worsen after prolonged standing or sitting. In women, symptoms may be worse during menstruation or pregnancy. Occasionally varicose veins can form a painful blood clot, referred to as superficial thrombophlebitis (inflammation of a vein).

Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 07/19/2019.

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