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Varicose Veins - Spider Veins

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Updated December 03, 2003

What are varicose veins and spider veins?

The heart pumps blood to supply oxygen and nutrients to all parts of the body. Arteries carry blood from the heart towards the body parts, while veins carry blood from the body parts back to the heart. As the blood is pumped back to the heart, veins act as one-way valves to prevent the blood from flowing backwards. If the one-way valve becomes weak, some of the blood can leak back into the vein, collect there, and then become congested or clogged. This congestion will cause the vein to abnormally enlarge. These enlarged veins can be either varicose veins or spider veins.

Varicose veins are very swollen and raised above the surface of the skin. They are dark purple or blue in color, and can look like cords or very twisted and bulging. They are found most often on the backs of the calves or on the inside of the leg, anywhere from the groin to the ankle. During pregnancy, varicose veins called hemorrhoids can form in the vagina or around the anus.

Spider veins are similar to varicose veins, but they are smaller, are often red or blue in color, and are closer to the surface of the skin than varicose veins. They can look like a tree branch or spider web with their short jagged lines. Spider veins can be found on both the legs and the face. They can cover either a very small or very large area of skin.

How common are abnormal leg veins?

As many as 60% of all American women and men suffer from some form of vein disorder, but women are more affected -- up to 50% overall. It also is estimated that 41% of all women will suffer from abnormal leg veins by the time they are in the 50s.

What causes varicose and spider veins?

No one knows the exact cause of spider and varicose veins, but there are several factors that cause a person to be more likely to develop them. Heredity, or being born with weak vein valves, is the greatest factor. Hormones also play a role. The hormonal changes that occur during puberty, pregnancy, and menopause, as well as taking estrogen, progesterone, and birth control pills can cause a woman to develop varicose veins or spider veins. During pregnancy, besides the increases in hormone levels, there also is a great increase in the volume of blood in the body that can cause veins to enlarge. The enlarged uterus also puts more pressure on the veins. (Within 3 months after delivery, varicose veins usually improve. However, more abnormal veins are likely to develop and remain after additional pregnancies.)

Other factors that weaken vein valves and that may cause varicose or spider veins include aging, obesity, leg injury, and prolonged standing, such as for long hours on the job. Spider veins on the cheeks or nose of a fair-skinned person may occur from sun exposure.

Why do varicose and spider veins usually appear in the legs?

The veins in the legs have the toughest job of carrying blood back to the heart. They endure the most pressure -- pressure that can overcome the strength of these one-way valves. The force of gravity, the pressure from body weight, and the task of carrying the blood from the bottom of the body up to the heart make the legs the primary location for varicose and spider veins.

Are varicose and spider veins painful or dangerous?

Medical treatment usually is not required for varicose or spider veins. However, varicose veins can become quite uncomfortable as well as look unattractive. Varicose veins usually enlarge and worsen over time. They can cause the legs and feet to swell. Although severe leg pain is not common, leg muscles may feel fatigued or heavy, or throb and cramp at night. The skin on the legs and around the ankles also can itch or burn.

In some cases, varicose veins and spider veins can cause more serious problems, and medical treatment will provide benefits. If the veins become severe, they can cause a condition called venous insufficiency, a severe clogging of the blood in the veins that prevents it from returning to the heart. This condition can cause problems like a deep-vein thrombosis (blood clot), or a severe bleeding infection. These usually are caused by injury to the varicose vein. A blood clot can be very dangerous because of the possibility of it traveling from the leg veins to the lungs, where it may block the heart and lungs from functioning. Lastly, because the skin tissue around the varicose vein may not receive enough nourishment, sores or skin ulcers may develop.

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