Varicose veins are a common condition caused by weak or damaged vein walls and valves. Varicose veins may form whenever blood pressure increases inside your veins. This can happen because of pregnancy, constipation, a tumor, or overweight and obesity.
This health topic focuses primarily on varicose veins in the legs, but sometimes varicose veins form in other parts of the body. Hemorrhoids are a type of varicose vein that develops in the rectum. Varicoceles occur in the testicles and may be linked to infertility in men. Varicose veins can also develop in the esophagus, stomach, or liver. Other vein problems that affect smaller blood vessels are telangiectasia and spider veins.
Veins have one-way valves inside them that open and close to keep blood flowing toward the heart. However, weakened or damaged valves or walls in the veins can cause blood to pool and even flow backwards. This is called reflux. The veins may grow larger and become distorted, resulting in varicose veins. Visit How the Heart Works to learn more about blood flow to and from the heart.
You may be at increased risk for varicose veins if you are older, sit or stand for long periods, have an inactive lifestyle, have overweight or obesity, or have a family history of varicose veins or deep vein thrombosis, a type of venous thromboembolism. Pregnancy and childbirth, especially multiple births, also increase a woman’s risk.
Signs and symptoms of varicose veins include bulging, bluish veins; swelling; aching pain; a feeling of heaviness in the legs and feet; itching; changes in skin color; and nighttime leg cramps. Sometimes varicose veins can limit your activities. Your symptoms may get worse when you sit or are on your feet for long periods, and they may get better when you lie down or put your feet up.
To diagnose varicose veins, your doctor will do a physical exam and ask about your symptoms, family history, activity levels, and lifestyle. Your doctor may assess the health of your leg veins using an ultrasound or other imaging tests, such as an X-ray or computed tomography (CT) scan.
Depending on your symptoms, your doctor may recommend lifestyle changes, a procedure to remove or close varicose veins, compression therapy, or medicines. The goals of treatment are to relieve symptoms, improve appearance, and prevent complications such as serious skin ulcers or sores, deep vein thrombosis, skin color changes, and bleeding. Bleeding from varicose veins is a medical emergency. Seek immediate help if this happens.
Treatments for varicose veins in the legs include lifestyle changes, medical procedures to remove or close them, compression therapy, and medicines. Depending on your symptoms, your doctor may recommend a combination of treatments or no treatment at all. There is a chance that new varicose veins may form even after treatment, or you may need to be treated more than once.
If you are pregnant, your doctor may recommend compression therapy and pain medicine to relieve symptoms of varicose veins, such as pain or heaviness in the legs.
Your doctor may recommend adopting lifestyle changes to help relieve symptoms or prevent varicose veins from getting worse. These may include:
Your doctor may recommend a procedure based on the results of ultrasound or other exams showing which of your veins are affected and how well they are working. Most procedures for varicose veins do not require a long recovery.
Options for medical procedures include:
Your doctor may recommend compression therapy as a treatment alone or after a procedure to remove or close off varicose veins. Compression therapy involves special elastic stockings or compression bandages that put gentle pressure on the legs to help prevent swelling.
For some people, especially those who have to sit or stand for long periods, compression may help relieve pain, swelling, and other symptoms, such as a feeling of heaviness in the legs. If you are pregnant, your doctor may recommend compression hose.
Compression therapy only relieves symptoms. Most doctors now recommend procedures to correct the reflux problem that is causing your varicose veins.
After you have a procedure to remove or close off your varicose veins, your doctor will probably recommend compression stockings for at least one week. Compression stockings may also help heal leg ulcers or sores that are a complication of varicose veins. Because vein problems are chronic, your doctor may suggest that you continue to wear compression stockings.
Some people find that compression stockings cause discomfort, itching, skin irritation, or swelling.
Your doctor may recommend medicine to help relieve the pain of varicose veins. Diosmiplex is the only available medicine approved for varicose veins. This plant-based medicine may help with some varicose vein symptoms and complications, including swelling, ulcers, and changes in skin and tissues of the legs.
It may take several weeks before you notice any improvement. Side effects may include gastrointestinal problems and rashes, but these are usually minor.
Learn about the following ways the NHLBI continues to translate current research into improved health for people who have varicose veins and related conditions. Research on this topic is part of the NHLBI’s broader commitment to advancing heart and vascular disease scientific discovery.
Learn about some of the pioneering research contributions we have made over the years that have improved clinical care.
In support of our mission, we are committed to advancing research on blood vessel disorders in part through the following ways.
We lead or sponsor many studies on varicose veins. See whether you or someone you know is eligible to participate in our clinical trials.
After reading our Varicose Veins Health Topic, you may be interested in additional information found in the following resources.