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 are not directly related 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 certain data sets, we have seen that varicose veins have been associated with heart disease but generally, one does not lead to the other since they’re really separate systems,” explains Syed T. Ahsan, M.D., a vascular medicine specialist at Henry Ford Health.
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 nighttime cramping 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:
- Eat right. Processed food and drinks can worsen varicose vein presence and cause swelling in the legs. Keep yourself healthy by making health healthy food choices. Look for ways to swap out unhealthy ingredients in recipes for low-fat or reduced sodium options.
- 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.
- 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).
- Wear compression stockings. “If they’re not too bothersome, we recommend wearing elastic compression stockings to prevent varicose veins from getting worse,” says Dr. Ahsan. “Wear them on days you are spending a lot of time on your feet to help reduce pain and swelling and delay the onset of skin disease caused by these veins.” Just be sure to take off compression garments at night.
- See a specialist. Varicose veins become medical problems when your legs feel heavy, achy, swollen or itchy. “In most cases, doctors can help patients by providing minimally-invasive procedure options,” says Dr. Ahsan. “Most of these procedures are considered outpatient meaning you can go home the same day and don’t need to be put under with anesthesia.”
Most insurance companies reimburse treatment of varicose veins if they’re deemed medically necessary. Most commonly, your doctor will order a venous ultrasound to determine the type of vein disease you have. If there’s reflux in the vein (meaning the blood flows backward), insurance will likely cover treatment, says Dr. Ahsan.
To find a vascular health specialist at Henry Ford, visit henryford.com or call 1-800-436-7936.
Dr. Syed Ahsan is a vascular medicine specialist. He sees patients at a number of Henry Ford Health facilities, including the Henry Ford Medical Centers in Detroit and Livonia, Michigan.