Varicose veins explained

16 May 2018

Varicose veins are a common problem affecting at least 20% of the UK’s adult population. They occur when small valves inside the veins stop functioning correctly.

Rather than blood flowing effortlessly back towards the heart, the blood stagnates within the veins causing aching, tiredness and discomfort.

At first, problem veins may not be visible but symptoms occur. Sometimes patches of blue thread veins may be the earliest signs of an underlying problem. Eventually, the abnormal veins may become swollen, enlarged and varicose. These blue lumpy varicose veins can be embarrassing and painful.

Whilst any vein can be affected, varicose veins most commonly develop in the legs and feet – predominantly because standing puts pressure on the leg veins.

In the developing stages, varicose veins and thread (broken) veins may be primarily a cosmetic problem. If ignored however, the condition can deteriorate and a variety of complications can occur such as leg swelling, pigmentation and inflammation (eczema) of the skin around the ankles. Eventually open sores (ulcers) can develop if the underlying problem is not addressed.

Occasionally, varicose veins can burst causing bleeding, or the blood within the veins can clot leading to the painful condition of phlebitis or even deep vein thrombosis. The risk of deep vein thrombosis is increased during long haul air travel.

Not all visible veins in the legs are varicose veins. Small veins underneath the skin, known as thread veins, spider veins or reticular veins, may become prominent due to a variety of different reasons. They can cause symptoms of discomfort, itching and irritation as well as being unsightly. 

Often the appearance of thread veins is due to the effect of daily wear and tear on delicate skin and local treatments are effective. However, sometimes thread veins are an indication of underlying varicose veins which may not be visible on examination.

Treatment of thread veins may not be successful unless the underlying problem (faulty valves in varicose veins) has been corrected. A venous assessment is therefore advisable before treating thread veins.

Fortunately, modern, minimally invasive vein treatments can now be performed under local anaesthetic as an out-patient or day case procedure. Return to normal activity is swift with relatively minor discomfort.

Modern myths – you don’t get them from crossing your legs for long periods but they are more common in occupations where you are on your feel for long periods of time – nurses and hairdressers do suffer more than most!

For healthy legs with good venous circulation keep your weight down, take regular walks and use compression hosiery on long haul flights.

If you are concerned about your vein circulation, an ultrasound scan (same as a “baby scan”) can be carried out. This will examine blood flow in all the veins in your legs, showing you on the screen how your valves are working and revealing any tiny blood clots if present.

Find out more about Mr Simon Payne, General and Vascular Surgeon practising at Spire Portsmouth Hospital.


The content of this article is provided for general information only, and should not be treated as a substitute for the professional medical advice of your doctor or other health care professional.

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