Are Varicose Veins A Sign Of Heart Risk?


Veins carry blood to the heart and have one-way valves that keep blood from flowing backward. But when those valves weaken, blood can pool in the lower legs increasing the pressure inside the veins. The resulting twisted blue bulges, known as varicose veins, may cause your legs to feel heavy, tired or achy and make you feel self-conscious about their unsightly appearance, but they don’t pose a major health threat.

In general, ropy veins aren’t a precursor to heart trouble. Arteries bring oxygen-rich blood from the heart to the toes while veins return the oxygen-poor blood from the toes back to the heart. So heart disease and peripheral artery disease (or poor circulation) are related to the arterial system while varicose veins involve the venous system.

“In very extreme cases, varicose veins might affect the arterial system of the heart, but generally, one does not lead to the other since they’re really separate systems,” explains my colleague Judith Lin, M.D., a vascular surgeon.

Nevertheless, people who have varicose veins often suffer from restless, achy legs, particularly when they’ve been on their feet all day. They may experience night cramps or restless legs syndrome. In severe cases, their skin may change color and become thickened and irritated. Some patients even develop visible sores around their ankles.

While many factors can increase your risk of developing varicose veins (including a family history, pregnancy, carrying around extra weight, and lack of movement and age), once a vein becomes varicose, it cannot repair itself. The good news: What’s good for the heart is also good for the veins. So even though varicose veins are mostly a cosmetic nuisance, these 5 strategies can help minimize their influence:

  1. Wear compression stockings. Compression stockings are socks that squeeze your veins and stop excess blood from flowing backward. “If they’re not too bothersome, we recommend wearing elastic compression stockings to prevent varicose veins from getting worse,” says Dr. Lin. “They don’t get rid of the veins, but they squeeze the veins and stop any excess blood from flowing backwards back to the heart—and that helps relieve pain and swelling and help heal skin sores.”
  2. Lose weight. If you’re lugging around extra padding, you’re overtaxing your veins. Losing weight can help prevent varicose veins by reducing that added pressure.
  3. Get moving. Standing or sitting for long periods of time increases the amount of blood that pools in your already compromised veins. Exercising not only promotes healthy circulation in the veins, it also prevents peripheral arterial disease (or poor circulation in the arteries).
  4. Don’t smoke. The toxic chemicals in cigarettes can seriously damage the venous system to say nothing of its effects on your arteries. Studies suggest smoking thickens the blood and reduces oxygen, slowing blood flow.
  5. See a specialist. Varicose veins become medical problems when your legs feel heavy, achy, swollen or itchy. In nearly all cases, doctors recommend a minimally invasive procedure called endovenous ablation that obliterates the vein using a laser or radiofrequency. “Patients are awake for the entire procedure and typically go home within an hour,” says Dr. Lin.

Most insurance companies reimburse treatment of varicose veins if they’re deemed a medical condition. The only way doctors can make that distinction is to perform a non-invasive ultrasound to measure the direction of venous blood flow in the leg. If there’s reflux in the vein (meaning the blood flows backward) insurance will likely cover treatment, says Dr. Lin.

Talk to your doctor about varicose veins if they concern you or learn more about Henry Ford Health’s Vein Center.

The Henry Ford Women’s Heart Center is designed to provide life-changing support to women with heart disease or cardiovascular risk factors. Learn more about how a comprehensive Lifestyle Enhancement Visit may help you or call (313) 876-4540 to make an appointment.

Categories: FeelWell