As a curious child, you might remember staring at an older
relative's thick stockings at the blue, gnarled veins lying under the skin like bumpy snakes. Known as
varicose veins, these blood
vessels, which return blood from the legs to the heart, are actually a more
The real, working venous system for the legs lies deeper, says
to Robert A. Weiss, MD, assistant professor of dermatology at the Johns Hopkins
School of Medicine in Baltimore. This is good news, because it means that if
the surface veins begin to clump up and bulge, they can be removed or destroyed
without ruining circulation to the leg.
The National Institutes of Health estimates that 60% of all men
and women suffer from some form of vein disorder. A quarter of varicose vein
sufferers are men, although Weiss notes that it is almost always women who seek
help for spider veins.
Spider veins, the more delicate red or blue tracings that can
pop up on the skin's surface like kinky spider webs, are a minor form of
varicose veins and can precede development of the more unsightly variation or
cause cosmetic concerns of their own. Sun exposure can make spider veins worse
by breaking down collagen under the skin.
Both varicose and spider veins result when valves designed to
keep blood from running backward away from the heart and back down into the leg
fail or become loose and flabby -- allowing backwash, which stretches veins and
even slowly leaks into ankle and leg tissue, causing swelling.
Aside from the "purple snake" effect, varicose veins
can cramp or throb at night. So much blood pools into the legs, that it can
cause the legs to feel heavy and leaden. If clear fluid from the expanded
vessels seeps into tissues, it can choke off circulation to the skin, causing
an itchyrash or even a painful ulcer,
As a rule, varicose veins are more unpleasant and ugly than
What Causes Varicose Veins?
The exact cause of this unwanted "body art" is not
known, but a genetic tendency toward weak, vein valves plays a big role, Weiss
says. Hormones also play a part, accounting for the increased incidence in
women. Puberty, pregnancy (pregnant women are very prone), and menopause, as
well as taking estrogen, progesterone, and birth control pills, can weaken
vein valves and change leg circulation.