Anatomy Physiology

The human circulatory system is a thing of wonder. Blood flows through arteries from the heart to every destination in the body. Veins and capillaries (tiny veins) continue the distribution process until every cell of your body is nourished with oxygen-rich blood. Then the long journey back to the heart begins through major veins. The muscles of your legs and magically-opened valves in your veins return the blood to your heart where it can get a new supply of oxygen. But sometimes, the system has a problem. Since the leg veins are so long and have gravity working against them, it is possible for blood to pool in the extremities. If the valves in the veins don’t open as they should, the process of return is even slower. The more pressure in your veins, the more they break down. Your doctor says, I see you have varicose veins.

If you’ve been diagnosed with varicose veins, none of this is news to you. Chances are your mother and grandmother had them. Your father may have, too. As a teenager, you hoped you’d never get them, but then you became pregnant, or overweight, or took a job that required standing all day maybe all three. Suddenly, you felt throbbing in the veins on the backs of your legs. Perhaps you developed hemorrhoids (varicose veins of the rectum). Those smooth legs that used to look fantastic in a swimsuit are now criscrossed with bulging blue worms.

Not only are varicose veins unsightly, they’re painful. Beyond pain, there is a danger of venous thrombosis or blood clots. If a clot occurs, circulation becomes very poor; the ankles may swell and the feet and legs develop scaly itchy skin. The skin can darken and sores and ulcers may develop. Redness and tenderness may develop along a vein. Pooling of blood in already distended veins is made worse by standing for long periods of time, by being overweight, and by sitting without moving in airplanes or cars. Tiny veins in the legs can also dilate causing a pattern called spider veins.

Simply looking at the legs can often confirm the presence of varicose veins. A venogram (an x-ray of the blood vessels) can make a definitive diagnosis as well as Doppler ultrasound which can study the blood flow. Prevention is the best antidote to varicose veins. Everyone, especially women and those with a family history, should be careful to not allow their legs to stay in the same position for long periods of time. Raising them while sitting; standing and exercising on long flights; and taking driving breaks can all be helpful in prevention. There are also custom fitting support stockings which aid the blood vessels in returning blood to the heart.

Other preventative measures include not wearing tight knee hose or girdles which impair circulation. Taking short walks during the lunch hour and doing calf pumping exercises during the day are helpful. Avoiding sitting with your legs crossed is a good preventative. Keep your weight under control and exercise daly.

At home in the evening, you can aid your circulation by lying on the floor or bed near a wall. Put your feet up on the wall for at least 15 minutes every day. Not only is this relaxing, but it helps your blood to return to your heart.

Sclerotherapy is a treatment where a fine needle is used to inject a solution into the affected vein. The solution irritates the lining of the vein causing the vein to swell and the blood to clot. The vein turns into scar tissue which eventually fades from view. Sclerotherapy is used on spider veins and varicose veins less than six millimeters in length. For larger veins, surgery or stripping can remove the affected veins. Circulation will be taken over by other veins.

If you don’t have varicose veins, consider yourself lucky and use healthful practices to prevent them. If you do have them, consult your health professional for an evaluation and treatment.