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Varicose veins: They may not be as harmless as you might think

| Healthy You | Chronic Conditions | Aging Well

Waves splash on legs of person standing on rocky shore

Anyone can get varicose veins and spider veins. Here’s when to consider treating them.

Did you know varicose veins can run in families? Did you also know anyone can get them?

“Varicose veins are caused by high pressure due to leaking valves in the venous system. There are various causes for this including family history and problems with connective tissue,” says Michelle Sohn, MD, a vascular surgeon at PeaceHealth.

While varicose veins tend to be seen more often in women — especially after pregnancy — men can also develop varicose veins and spider veins.

Treatment isn't just for looks

“One of the most common frustrations is that patients are told that varicose veins don’t need to be treated or need to be accepted as ‘part of life’,” Dr. Sohn says. Many mistakenly believe that treating varicose veins is just to improve the way they look.

Typical symptoms from varicose veins include heaviness in the legs particularly towards the end of day, aching, throbbing, skin discoloration, hardening of the tissues in the lower leg, and in severe cases, wounds that won’t heal.

All of these symptoms can prevent you from enjoying normal activities.

One patient:  "I feel like I could fly"

Dr. Sohn recalls one patient who didn’t have a car or driver’s license. He biked everywhere. He had severe varicose veins and venous reflux, a condition that keeps the flow of blood from moving as it should.

“For decades he lived with veins so lumpy that his legs looked like bags of marbles.”  

After treatment, “he was so excited. He said ‘I feel like I could fly,’” says Dr. Sohn, “The heaviness of retained blood in his veins was gone. He could work and walk and bike normally.”

When to seek treatment

That patient is a good example of when to seek treatment for varicose veins. If blood collects in the legs for long periods of time, you may feel:

  • Swelling
  • Aching
  • Throbbing
  • Heaviness

“A lot of people who experience these symptoms will decrease their normal activities,” says Dr. Sohn, “Any time a medical problem affects your ability to function normally, that's a good cue to do something about it.”

Untreated varicose and spider veins can also lead to long-term issues such as thinning skin, wounds or bleeding after simple bumps or small nicks.

Varicose vein treatments

Among other things, treatment for varicose veins include:

  • Wearing compression stockings
  • Avoiding sitting or standing for long periods
  • Getting daily exercise
  • Elevating the legs at night

These and other measures can help ease symptoms. For many people, this is enough.

A wide range of medical treatments are also available to take care of varicose veins, depending on your condition and concerns. Treatments for varicose veins are typically a same-day procedure or office visit.  They include ablation or blocking the backwards flow in the vein, plucking out large varicose veins or sometimes injection of the smaller veins.

Improvements in vein treatment have happened in the past 20 years. Surgeons are now able to use less invasive procedures to treat veins.

“We can seal the vein using heat energy or a solution (like glue) to close blood flow through that nonfunctional vein,” says Dr. Sohn.  Radiofrequency ablation or surgical removal of varicose veins is one kind of treatment.

It’s a minor procedure. You’d go home the same day you have surgery. You can expect to have discomfort for a couple of days. You can use over-the-counter medications for pain relief.

Most people can go back to work or regular activities within three days.

Spider vein treatment

Spider veins are tiny veins that show up really close to the surface of the skin. “They kind of look like a little network or a little road map on the skin,” she notes. “We treat those using a procedure called sclerotherapy.”

This involves injecting something like a detergent foam into the vein. After a couple of treatments, the appearance of the spider veins can lessen.

Check your insurance plan to see if sclerotherapy or other vein treatments are covered. An out-of-pocket cost often applies.

“It’s common to think varicose veins aren’t a big deal,” says Dr. Sohn. “But I know patients whose lives have been improved with treatment. If these affect you, it’s worth exploring your options.”

You can use this tool to weigh whether a surgical procedure might be right for you.

And talk to your primary care provider if you want to learn more about varicose vein treatments.

portrait of Michelle E. Sohn MD

Michelle E. Sohn MD

General Surgery
Vascular Surgery

Michelle E. Sohn MD practices General Surgery in Bellingham.