Varicose Veins: Complications, Treatment and Prevention


Published: 08 December 2022

Varicose veins are swollen, twisted, blue-in-colour blood vessels under the skin. They most commonly occur in the legs and feet (Better Health Channel 2020).

Veins have one-way valves inside of them that open and close to keep blood flowing towards the heart. When weakened or damaged, valves or walls in the vein cause blood to pool or flow backward (reflux). Varicose veins occur when these veins grow larger and become distorted due to blood pooling (NHLBI 2022; Better Health Channel 2020).

Note that while they mainly appear in the legs, varicose veins can also occur in the:

  • Rectum (haemorrhoids)
  • Testicles (varicoceles)
  • Oesophagus (oesophageal varices).

(NHLBI 2022; Mayo Clinic 2021, 2022)

Spider Veins

Closely associated with varicose veins are ‘spider veins’, which occur when blood that collects in varicose veins leaks into smaller blood vessels (capillaries) and enlarges them. Spider veins are smaller and closer to the surface of the skin. They are often found on the face or legs (Healthdirect 2022; Better Health Channel 2020).

spider veins

Why Do People Get Varicose Veins

The exact reason why varicose veins occur in certain people is unknown. However, there is considerable evidence to support the claim that genetic links and a past history of deep vein thrombosis (a blood clot that occurs in a deep vein) are predictors for this condition (Wright & Fitridge 2013).

Why are Varicose Veins Most Common in the Legs?

The veins in the legs are further away from the heart. Therefore, blood is working against gravity for a long distance, making it more difficult for blood to flow upwards (OASH 2021).

Risk Factors for Varicose Veins

Women are twice as likely to get varicose veins as men. It’s thought that female hormones might cause the veins to dilate. If this is the case, birth control pills or hormone therapy could contribute to the likelihood of developing varicose veins (Brazier & Biggers 2022).

Other risk factors include:

  • Pregnancy
  • Menopause
  • Having a family history of varicose veins
  • Being over 50
  • Obesity
  • Standing for long periods of time.

(Brazier & Biggers 2022)

Symptoms of Varicose Veins

  • Bulging, bluish veins
  • Aching, throbbing or burning leg pain
  • Itchy, heavy, cramping or restless legs
  • Swollen ankles
  • Darkened skin
  • Venous eczema.

(Healthdirect 2022; Better Health Channel 2020)

What Are the Complications of Varicose Veins?

Any situation where blood flow is restricted or undermined is cause for concern. While most varicose veins cause no complications, potential issues include:

  • Bleeding from the affected vein
  • Venous ulcers
  • Poor circulation
  • Thrombophlebitis (blood clots that cause inflammation)
  • Deep vein thrombosis (DVT).

(Brazier & Biggers 2022; Healthdirect 2022)

Note that bleeding from varicose veins is considered a medical emergency (NHLBI 2022).

Diagnosing Varicose Veins

varicose veins examination

To diagnose varicose veins, a general practitioner (GP) will perform a physical examination and request the following information:

  • Symptoms
  • Family history
  • Activity levels
  • Lifestyle.

(NHLBI 2022)

A GP might assess the health of the leg veins using ultrasound or other imaging tests such as an x-ray or computed tomography (CT) scan (NHLBI 2022).

Treatment for Varicose Veins

Treatment options range from conservative to surgical approaches. Varicose veins are a progressive disease, so they will steadily worsen. Complications develop in a relatively small number of cases and may prompt the patient to seek medical care (Wright & Fitridge 2013).

Age, general health condition and symptomatology will be deciding factors for the route of treatment for people living with varicose veins (NHLBI 2022).

Treatment options include:

  • Lifestyle changes: aiming for a healthy weight; avoiding standing or sitting in the same position for long periods; being physically active.
  • Sclerotherapy to close off a vein: injecting medication to seal or close veins. Complications include changes to skin colour and, in rare cases, venous thromboembolism, nerve damage, serious allergic reaction or stroke.
  • Endovenous ablation: uses lasers or radiofrequency energy to seal the appropriate vein. Complications include bruising, pain and changes in skin colour. Serious complications including numbness, venous thromboembolism and skin burns can occur but are uncommon.
  • Surgery: removing veins near the surface of the skin by making small cuts or punctures.

(Healthdirect 2022; NHLBI 2022)

The aim of treatment is to relieve symptoms, improve appearanc, and prevent complications such as serious skin ulcers or sores, DVT, skin colour changes and bleeding (NHLBI 2022).

Preventing Varicose Veins

varicose veins compression stockings

While it is not entirely within a person’s control to prevent varicose veins, the following may help to reduce the risk of developing them or developing more:

  • Wearing compression stockings
  • Managing weight
  • Exercising often
  • Changing sitting and standing positions regularly
  • Avoiding wearing high heels for extended periods of time
  • Elevating legs when resting
  • Avoiding crossing legs while sitting.

(Healthdirect 2022; Better Health Channel 2020)


Test Your Knowledge

Question 1 of 3

Risk factors for varicose veins include:


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