What are varicose veins?

Varicose veins are swollen, twisted blood vessels that bulge just under the skin’s surface. They are blue or purple and usually appear in the legs, feet and ankles. They can be painful or itchy. Spider veins may surround varicose veins. Spider veins are smaller red or purple lines that appear close to the skin’s surface.

Although they can be unsightly and uncomfortable, varicose veins aren’t dangerous for most people. In some cases, severe varicose veins can lead to serious health problems, such as blood clots. You can relieve most varicose vein symptoms at home. Or your healthcare provider can treat them with injections, laser therapy and surgery.

What are veins?

A vein is a blood vessel that carries blood to your heart from tissues throughout your body. When a vein works as it should, valves (flaps that open and close) inside the vein keep blood flowing in only one direction — toward the heart.

Veins can be damaged by disease and injury. During the aging process, veins naturally lose elasticity and become less flexible.

Varicose veins | Cleveland Clinic

What is the difference between varicose veins and spider veins?

Varicose veins and spider veins are both types of venous disease, but they look different. Spider veins are smaller and thinner than varicose veins. They look like a red or blue spider webs or branches of a tree, and they are close to the skin’s surface.

Spider veins aren’t usually painful. They can appear anywhere on the body, most often behind the knee, on the feet or on the face. Varicose veins usually appear on the feet and legs.

Who is likely to get varicose veins?

Anyone can develop varicose veins, but women are more likely to have them than men. Certain factors increase your chances of developing varicose veins, including:

  • Age: During the aging process, vein walls and valves don’t work as well as they used to. Veins lose elasticity and stiffen.
  • Gender: Female hormones can allow the walls of the veins to stretch. Women who are pregnant, taking the birth control pill or going through menopause have a higher risk of varicose veins because of changes in hormone levels.
  • Family history: The condition is inherited (runs in families).
  • Lifestyle: Standing or sitting for long periods decreases circulation. Wearing restrictive clothing, such as girdles or pants with tight waistbands, can decrease blood flow.
  • Overall health: Certain health conditions, such as severe constipation or certain tumors, increase pressure in the veins.
  • Tobacco use: People who smoke are more likely to develop varicose veins.
  • Weight: Obesity and excess weight put pressure on blood vessels.

How common are varicose veins?

Varicose veins are very common. Around one-third of all adults have varicose veins. They are more common in women than in men.

What causes varicose veins?

Varicose veins occur when the walls of veins become weakened. As blood pressure in the vein increases, the weakened walls allow the vein to get bigger. As the vein stretches, the valves in the vein can’t work like they should. Sluggish blood backs up or pools in the vein, causing the vein to swell, bulge and twist.

Vein walls and valves can become weak for several reasons, including:

  • Hormones.
  • The aging process.
  • Excess weight.
  • Restrictive clothing.
  • Pressure inside the vein due to standing for long periods.

What are the symptoms of varicose veins?

The most recognizable sign of varicose veins is a gnarled, blue or purple vein just under the skin’s surface. Symptoms include:

  • Bulging veins: Twisted, swollen, rope-like veins are often blue or purple. They appear just below the surface of the skin on the legs, ankles and feet. They can develop in clusters. Tiny red or blue lines (spider veins) may appear nearby.
  • Heavy legs: Muscles in the legs may feel tired, heavy or sluggish, especially after physical activity.
  • Itching: The area around the varicose veins may itch.
  • Pain: Legs may be painful, achy or sore, especially behind the knees. You might have muscle cramps.
  • Swelling: The legs, ankles and feet can swell and throb.
  • Skin discolorations and ulcers: If left untreated, varicose veins can cause brown discolorations on the skin. Venous ulcers (sores) on the skin can result from severe varicose veins.

Where do varicose veins usually appear?

Most often, varicose veins develop on the lower half of the body, usually on the calves, ankles and feet. They can also develop in the pelvic area (pelvic congestion syndrome), especially in women who have had children. Varicose veins in the testicles (varicocele) can lead to infertility in men.

Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 10/13/2020.

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