Varicose veins have long been considered a cosmetic issue. If you aren’t familiar with the term, these veins typically appear on the legs as twisted or bulging bluish chords. (Spider veins are a mild variant.) “As the veins become dilated, valves within them don’t work as well, so blood does not get returned to the heart as it should and may flow backwards leading to swelling,” explains Joshua Zeichner, MD, Director of Cosmetic and Clinical Research Department of Dermatology Mount Sinai Hospital. For most people, varicose veins are unsightly but not painful, and so they have posed no real problems. However, new research shows that they might be a warning sign of a more serious health issue.
According to a study published in the Journal of American Medical Association, varicose veins are associated with a “significantly increased risk” for Deep Venous Thrombosis (DVP), a potentially deadly blood clot that develops in a deep vein. Symptoms include pain, swelling, and immobility. Doctors in Taiwan studied nearly 213,000 patients with varicose veins and those without varicose veins, and they discovered that people with varicose veins are five times more likely to develop DVT.
“Varicose veins for a long time were considered only a cosmetic issue, but recently a variety of health issues have been shown to be associated, mainly blood clots,” says Dr. Zeichner. “While some of these may be localized, in some cases they can actually be life-threatening, so if you suffer from varicose veins, it is important to see a pain specialist for evaluation.”
While doctors aren’t sure why some people develop varicose veins and others don’t, there are many factors that may leave you predisposed. “A number of factors predispose an individual to varicose veins, including genetics, age, occupations that involve a lot of standing, obesity, hormonal influences from pregnancy, birth control pills, or hormonal replacement therapy, conditions that increase pressure in the abdomen, a history of blood clots, or trauma to the area,” explains Sejal Shah, MD, a NYC cosmetic dermatologist and founder of SmarterSkin Dermatology, adding that women are affected more than men.
While this study is interesting, Dr. Shah explains that because of its design, it can only show an association but not a cause and effect relationship. Still, if you’re looking to smooth things over, there are a variety of surgical procedures to remove varicose veins, as well as lasers that can help eliminate them. “During sclerotherapy, a special chemical called sclerosant is injected into a varicose vein to damage and scar the inside lining of the vein, causing the vein to close, while laser therapy uses heat to ablate or close the veins,” Dr. Shah says. Veins can also be surgically removed. Such procedures should only be handled by a vascular surgeon or a dermatologist who specializes in leg veins, adds Dr. Zeichner.