Varicose veins: an animation

Author: NHS Choices

Varicose veins are swollen veins that appear lumpy and blue through the skin. Any vein in your body can become varicose but the veins in the legs, particularly the calf, are most commonly affected. Varicose veins are a common condition, affecting both men and women. So what causes varicose veins? Blood travels around your body through blood vessels.

Arteries carry blood from the heart to the rest of the body and veins return blood to the heart. When your leg muscles move, they squeeze the leg veins and help to push the blood upwards to your heart. Inside the large veins of your body are one-way valves which stop blood flowing backwards in the wrong direction. In varicose veins the walls of the veins stretch and become less flexible, which weakens the valves and stops them from working properly.

Blood then leaks backwards and builds up in the vein, causing it to swell. The reason why your veins and valves stretch and stop working is not fully understood. But common risk factors are obesity, having an occupation that involves standing a lot, and pregnancy. If your varicose veins cause complications, such as inflammation or bleeding, your skin changes or ulcers start to form, your doctor may recommend surgery. The most common type of surgery is called ligation and stripping.

In this procedure, your surgeon will make a small cut near the groin at the top end of the varicose vein. And another one further down your leg by the knee or ankle. The vein is cut and tied near the groin. A thin wire is inserted through the vein.

Varicose veins: an animation

And the vein itself is carefully pulled out through the lower cut. Removal of varicose veins does not affect the blood flow, since other veins take over their role. Even after surgical treatment, there is still a risk that varicose veins may come back. Other available treatments includes sclerotherapy, where the affected vein is injected with a chemical to seal it closed, and new types of treatment, such as laser, and radiofrequency ablation therapy.

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