Are Varicose Veins Dangerous? Here’s How to Treat It

Varicose veins are not a cosmetic problem. Instead, it’s a condition that’s indicative of more serious disorders.

Varicose veins showing on a woman’s left thigh

Despite what many people believe, varicose veins are not merely a cosmetic problem but a condition that puts people at risk of other, more severe health issues.

A common condition amongst women and the elderly, varicose veins are swollen, enlarged, and lumpy veins that usually occur on the legs and feet due to weak or damaged vein valves.  

The primary function of our veins is to carry blood back to the heart. The veins on our legs, in particular, will need to fight gravity to channel blood to the heart effectively. To this end, numerous vein valves exist to prevent a backflow of blood when the leg muscles contract.

However, a few of these valves may not close properly, causing blood to flow backwards and create visibly enlarged and twisted veins.

Woman holding her calf, which has visible varicose veins
Prolonged use of high heels can increase a woman’s risk of developing varicose veins.

Who is Prone to Developing Varicose Veins?

This condition is especially prevalent amongst women. For instance, hormonal changes can relax a woman’s veins, causing damages to the valves. Pregnant women, meanwhile, are at risk of developing varicose veins when their uterus presses against the veins. This causes the veins in the leg to expand and consequently leads to damaged valves.

Separately, people who are overweight or obese, stand for prolonged periods of time, or have a family history of weak veins are also at risk of developing varicose veins. This condition also afflicts the elderly due to a weakening of valves as they age.

What Happens if You Ignore Varicose Veins?

Typically, varicose veins can cause a person to experience night cramps, skin darkening, and severe leg swelling and aches. In addition, varicose veins that have developed over a long time can cause blood products to seep into the skin and trigger skin irritation. Subsequently, this can lead to varicose eczema, which presents symptoms like itchiness, redness, and scaling of the skin.  

Dilated, swollen leg veins can quicken the blood clotting process. If a blood clot dislodges from the vein, it can travel to the lungs, resulting in pulmonary embolism, a potentially fatal condition.

Understanding the Different Stages of Vein Disease

Varicose veins on the leg of an elderly woman
Old people are at risk of varicose veins due to weakened valves.

Also known as chronic venous insufficiency (CVI), vein disease results in tiny single-way valves that control blood flow through veins. Different symptoms may appear in the six stages below:

Stage 1: Spider veins

During this stage, small, reddish-purple veins will start to appear on the face, neck, ankles, legs, and other areas of the body.

Stage 2: Rope-like varicose veins

At this stage, people may start to realise that they have vein disease. Simultaneously, the swollen veins that indicate the progress of this disease may come with a numb, itchy, or burning sensation along the veins. It can also happen in weak or tired legs.

Stage 3: Edema that doesn’t cause skin changes

Swollen ankles and legs occur in the third stage. This is because vein disease has disrupted the circulatory system’s ability to reabsorb fluid.

Stage 4: Skin changes and discolouration

Progression of the disease will also lead to changes in skin colour and texture. The skin on your legs can become white or reddish-brown or have a leathery texture that’s brittle and prone to injury.

Stage 5: Skin changes with healed ulceration

Scratches or injuries to the toughened skin may heal with treatment but also cause scarring.

Stage 6: Skin changes with active ulceration

The last stage of vein disease involves the occurrence of leg ulcers or skin injuries that don’t heal with treatment. This can cause bleeding, open sores on the leg.

Doctor injecting the leg of a person with varicose veins
Sclerotherapy is one of the ways to treat varicose veins.

Treatment Options for Varicose Veins

Unfortunately, taking steps to prevent an onset of varicose veins may not necessarily be effective. Exercise, leg elevation, weight control, and compression stockings might help delay the progression of the condition. It’s also advisable for people to avoid standing for too long, and women to limit wearing high heels. 

In terms of treatment, a healthcare provider specialising in Western medicine will first diagnose a person’s condition by looking at their medical history. They would also run some tests to rule out other causes of oedema (including heart failure, liver disease, and kidney disease). Once they identify the location of the dilated, swollen blood vessels on the legs, they would use a Doppler ultrasound to learn about the condition’s severity.

1. Endothermal ablation

Endo Venous Laser Ablation (EVLA) and Radiofrequency Ablation procedures close off the faulty vein that feeds varicosities without stripping or wounding. To perform this technique, health practitioners will push a catheter up the vein from the ankle or knee. Then, they will carefully place it in between the long saphenous vein (LSV) in the thigh or the short saphenous vein (SSV) behind the knee and calf.

Activation of the catheter will send an electrical current or laser energy through the vein wall. In doing so, the proteins in the vein wall will reshape and compress. Ultimately, this prevents blood from flowing through, thus effectively removing it from circulation.

2. Sclerotherapy

This treatment method involves the injection of chemical agents into the veins, producing an inflammation that, in time, obliterates varicose veins. A mixture of air and chemicals to create foam will achieve better results, where modern ultrasound directs the foam into the right veins.

3. Surgical removal of veins

Ligation and stripping are surgical procedures to remove a damaged vein or prevent complications of vein damage. Ligation involves the making of one or more incisions over damaged veins, cutting them off. On the other hand, stripping removes several vein valves, diseased veins, or heavily damaged veins.

4. Consumption of a herbal decoction

Studies showed that a Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) decoction called Buyang Huanwu could effectively treat varicose veins of the lower extremities via blood activation and qi (vital life energy) replenishment. From the perspective of Western medicine, Buyang Huanwu has the potential to treat varicose veins by inducing angiogenesis, inhibiting cell death, and protecting nerves. It can also significantly reduce inflammation, demonstrate anti-atherosclerosis properties, and increase the levels of element-binding protein and vascular endothelial growth factors.

5. Acupuncture

Illustration of acupoints GB34 (Yanglingquan) and ST44 (Neiting)
Stimulating acupoints like GB34 (Yanglingquan) and ST44 (Neiting) can help manage varicose veins.

The application of acupuncture needles can invigorate the blood and free stasis. However, patients may need several sessions to achieve optimal blood flow through tightened veins. An individual study also shows that the stimulation of acupoints like GB34 (Yanglingquan) and ST44 (Neiting) alongside the practice of Buerger’s exercise can effectively manage varicose veins. 

Varicose veins can impair a person’s overall quality of life. This is why taking proper steps to improve blood flow in the legs is essential. In the same vein, you should consult with a healthcare provider and TCM practitioner before opting to treat the condition with herbal formulations or acupuncture. 

This is an adaptation of an article什么是静脉曲张?” (What is Varicose Veins), which first appeared on Health 123 website.

References

  1. Comprehensive Integrated Care. 2019. Sun City Vein Doctors Explain the Stages of Vein Disease, and Why You Want To Seek Early Treatment. [Accessed 27 November 2021] 
  2. University of Michigan Health. 2020. Vein Ligation and Stripping. [Accessed 27 November 2021] 
  3. US National Library of Medicine. 2021. Efficacy and safety of Buyang Huanwu decoction in the treatment of varicose veins of the lower extremities. [Accessed 27 November 2021] 
  4. Acufinder.com. Is Acupuncture Good for Varicose Veins? [Accessed 27 November 2021] 

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