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Varicose veins

2-minute read

What are varicose veins?

Varicose veins are swollen, twisted blood vessels just under the skin. You can get them anywhere, but they’re most common in the legs and feet.

Healthy leg veins have one-way valves to help blood flow up to the heart. Varicose veins happen when the tiny valves in the vein become damaged or stop working. This causes the blood to pool in the veins and stretch them out.

Blood that collects in varicose veins can leak into smaller blood vessels (capillaries), which enlarge and form ‘spider veins’.

For information on varicose veins and pregnancy, visit Pregnancy, Birth and Baby.

What are the symptoms of varicose veins?

Some people don’t notice any symptoms, other than enlarged veins.

Others may have:

  • aching, throbbing or burning leg pain
  • heaviness, cramping or restless legs
  • swollen ankles
  • darkening of the skin over the veins
  • an itchy rash (varicose eczema)

Less common symptoms are:

  • ulcers
  • clotting
  • bleeding from the affected vein

Symptoms may be worse at the end of the day.

What causes varicose veins?

It is not known why some people get varicose veins and others don’t.

They are more common in people who:

  • are older
  • have varicose veins in the family
  • have had a deep vein thrombosis (blood clot) in their legs
  • are obese
  • are pregnant or going through menopause
  • stand a lot
  • don’t move much
  • have had blood clots previously
  • have had a leg injury

How are varicose veins treated?

There are a number of treatment options to ease your symptoms and stop varicose veins getting worse:

  • sclerotherapy — injecting chemicals to block the veins
  • laser or ablation therapy — using heat to seal the veins
  • surgery — removing veins through small punctures or cuts

Your doctor might suggest you wear compression stockings, which create gentle pressure that stops the blood pooling in the legs.

How are varicose veins prevented?

There’s no sure-fire way to prevent varicose veins, although you can reduce your risk of getting them, or getting more, by:

  • avoiding standing for long periods of time
  • managing your weight
  • being more active
  • changing your sitting or standing position regularly
  • avoiding wearing high heels for long periods
  • putting your legs up when resting
  • don't cross your legs when you're sitting

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Last reviewed: March 2020

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