Varicose veins or 'varices' occur when veins become dilated and swollen. They usually appear in the legs but they can also affect the oesophagus (gullet) and the testes. Varicose veins are bulging and appear blue or purple in colour. They can cause aching, heaviness and pain.

They are more common in women than men and are particularly common during pregnancy. They can also run in families.

Causes

Veins carry blood to the heart from other areas of the body. Inside veins there are many valves which keep blood flowing in the right direction and prevent backward flow. This is especially important if blood has to travel against gravity to reach the heart. Sometimes these valves do not work properly and blood begins to collect in pools. The walls of the veins then stretch to accommodate collected blood until they eventually lose their elasticity and become rippled and saggy.

Avoiding Varicose Veins

  • Do not stand up for long periods of time. If you do spend a lot of your time standing up, try and put your feet up every so oftenMaintaining a sensible body weight will help to reduce the risk of varicose veinsMedium support stockings or knee length support socks are available from most pharmacies. These should be worn during pregnancyRegular exercise will help to maintain a strong circulation. Do not sit down for long periods of time without exercise. Taking a regular walk every day will help to reduce the risk of varicose veinsAvoid lifting heavy objectsAvoid wearing tight or restrictive clothingDo not smokeDo not cross your legs Eat a high fibre diet including wholemeal bread, cereals, wholemeal pasta and pulses such as chickpeas, lentils and beans (including baked beans). You should also eat at least five portions of fruit and vegetables each day. One portion equates to one medium sized piece of fruit such as an apple or a banana, a slice of a large piece of fruit such as a melon or pineapple, two small pieces of fruit such as plums, a cupful of grapes or berries, 2-3 tablespoons of fruit salad, 2-3 tablespoons of stewed or tinned fruit, two tablespoons of vegetables, a dessert bowl of salad or a 150ml glass of fruit juice
  • Vitamin C helps to keep veins healthy. Vitamin C can be found in fresh fruit (especially citrus fruit) and vegetables.

Treatment

Treatment for varicose veins is very important. If the condition is not adequately controlled, ulcers can develop and bleeding can occur.Support: Doctors often prescribe elastic hosiery to help support varicose veins. They are available in thigh length and knee length stockings and tights. Ideally they should be put on first thing in the morning before getting out of bed and taken off last thing at night.Sclerotherapy: This involves injecting the veins with a solution which causes the veins to wither. The blood then finds an alternative route to the heart.Surgery: Occasionally surgery is performed to remove varicose veins.

When To See A Doctor

If varicose veins in the legs start to bleed, elevate your leg above the level of your heart and apply light compression. Then telephone a doctor.