What is Popliteal Vein Thrombosis? Is it Related to Varicose Vein Disease?

Written By Center for Vein Restoration
Blog Image What Is Popliteal Vein Thrombosis

Popliteal vein thrombosis is a blood clot in a major vein behind the knee. This thrombus (blood clot) poses health risks such as pulmonary embolism and chronic venous insufficiency, also known as vein disease (the root cause of varicose veins). Although popliteal vein thrombosis is separate and distinct from vein disease, individuals with varicose veins may have an increased risk of the condition due to shared risk factors. Recognizing this relationship is vital for prevention and overall vein health.

What is the popliteal vein?

The popliteal vein is deep in the leg and carries deoxygenated blood from the lower leg and knee region back toward the heart's right atrium. It is a major vein located behind the knee joint formed by the merging of smaller veins, including the anterior tibial vein and the posterior tibial vein, as well as the small saphenous vein.

Here's a brief overview of the anatomy of the popliteal vein:

  • Location: The popliteal vein is deep within the popliteal fossa, which is the hollow at the back of the knee joint.
  • Course: It begins at the termination of the small saphenous vein and continues upward through the popliteal fossa, eventually merging with the femoral vein to form the common femoral vein.
  • Function: The popliteal vein plays a crucial role in returning blood from the lower extremity back to the heart. It transports deoxygenated blood collected from the tissues and muscles of the leg and knee.

What is Popliteal Vein Thrombosis?

Popliteal vein thrombosis refers to the formation of a blood clot within the popliteal vein. According to Medical News Today, popliteal vein thrombosis is a type of deep vein thrombosis. It can lead to severe complications if not treated promptly, including post-thrombotic syndrome (chronic leg pain, swelling, and skin changes) and recurrent venous thromboembolism.

The popliteal vein is one of the most common areas in the body for developing deep vein thrombosis (DVT), per the National Library of Medicine (NIH). Because this blood clot has the potential to break free and travel to the lungs, there is a risk of pulmonary embolism (PE), which is potentially life-threatening.

What is vein disease?

Varicose vein disease, on the other hand, is caused by weakened or damaged vein valves in the vein walls, which causes swelling, itching, and twisted bulging veins. While varicose veins can increase the risk of developing superficial thrombophlebitis (a blood clot in a superficial vein), they are not directly related to popliteal vein thrombosis.

However, individuals with varicose veins may have an increased risk of developing deep vein thrombosis (DVT), including popliteal vein thrombosis, due to factors such as venous stasis (poor blood flow), endothelial damage, and hypercoagulability (the increased tendency of blood to clot). Therefore, while popliteal vein thrombosis and varicose vein disease are not directly related, they share some common risk factors and can coexist in certain individuals.

Similarities and differences between popliteal vein thrombosis and varicose vein disease

Popliteal vein thrombosis and varicose vein disease are distinct conditions affecting veins in the body, each with its own characteristics and implications. Here are the similarities and differences between these two conditions.


Popliteal vein thrombosis is related to varicose veins in some cases. Varicose veins are enlarged, twisted veins that can lead to venous insufficiency. While varicose veins do not directly cause popliteal vein thrombosis, they can be associated with other venous pathologies like venous aneurysms that may increase the risk of developing popliteal vein thrombosis.

  1. Recent Surgery and Obesity: Both are risk factors for popliteal vein thrombosis and vein disease.
  2. Blood Clot Formation: Both conditions involve the potential for blood clot formation within the veins. Popliteal vein thrombosis (PVT) is a type of deep vein thrombosis (DVT) characterized by a blood clot in the popliteal vein. Varicose veins can also be associated with an increased risk of venous thromboembolic diseases like DVT if varicose veins are left untreated. Whether in the popliteal vein or elsewhere in the leg, symptoms of a blood clot include tender and warm-to-the-touch swelling, pain upon standing or walking, and bruising or discoloration. These symptoms are a medical emergency, especially if they are
  3. Risk of Pulmonary Embolism: In both conditions, there is a risk that a blood clot could dislodge and travel to the lungs, causing a pulmonary embolism (PE), which can have serious consequences.

Remember that blood clots can be life-threatening, and early intervention is essential. That’s why Center for Vein Restoration (CVR) offers a same-day DVT-rule-out service. Our hotline is 877-SCAN-DVT (877-722-6388).


1. Location: Popliteal vein thrombosis specifically affects the popliteal vein behind the knee, which is a deep vein, while varicose veins are enlarged and twisted superficial veins, usually found in the legs and feet.

2. Cause: Popliteal vein thrombosis is due to blood clot formation. Varicose veins form when the valves inside the leg veins malfunction, causing blood to flow backward and accumulate in the lower limbs. This buildup of blood raises the pressure within the veins, leading to unsightly vein bulging and stretching.

3. Risk factors: Healthline outlines risks for popliteal vein thrombosis that include recent surgery, tobacco use, obesity, estrogen use, history of DVT, immobility, cancer, lower extremity trauma, pregnancy, and Factor V Leiden (an inherited condition affecting blood clotting).

Risk factors that increase one’s odds of developing varicose veins include:

  • Gender: Women are more likely to develop vein disease due to hormonal changes that affect vein walls and valves.
  • Obesity: Carrying excess weight increases pressure on the legs and damaged veins.
  • Pregnancy: Hormonal changes and increased blood volume during pregnancy can enlarge veins.
  • Family history: Having a family history of chronic venous insufficiency.
  • Smoking: Smoking can impact cardiovascular health and increase the chances of developing vein disease.
  • Prolonged sitting or standing: Both activities can affect blood flow in the legs, contributing to vein disease.
  • Lack of physical activity: Inactivity can lead to venous issues by reducing the efficiency of the body's blood circulation system.

4. Symptoms: Popliteal vein thrombosis may be asymptomatic or present with symptoms related to DVT, including throbbing pain in one leg, swelling, and skin that is warm to the touch.

    Varicose vein disease often presents with symptoms such as sensations of heaviness, persistent dull pain, fatigue, cramps, and itching. In severe cases, excessive pressure can cause blood to seep into the surrounding skin, resulting in a brownish-black discoloration of the lower leg and a slow-to-heal wound called a venous ulcer.

    5. Severity: Popliteal vein thrombosis is more serious and can lead to life-threatening complications compared to varicose veins, which are not life-threatening yet can reduce quality of life.

    6. Treatment: The treatment approaches for these conditions differ greatly. Popliteal vein thrombosis requires immediate medical intervention with medications such as anticoagulants (blood thinners) like aspirin, heparin, warfarin, rivaroxaban, apixaban, dabigatran, or enoxaparin to prevent clot formation and help dissolve existing clots. In severe cases, catheter-based interventions or surgical removal of the clot may be necessary.

    Varicose veins may be managed with lifestyle changes, compression stockings, or minimally invasive procedures performed as an outpatient by a qualified vein specialist. Treatment options include:

    • Ultrasound-guided foam sclerotherapy: A vein specialist uses ultrasonography to guide a needle into the target vein. Foam sclerosant is injected into the vein, causing it to close. Blood is redirected to healthier veins as the body absorbs the closed vein.
    • Radiofrequency ablation: A tiny catheter inserted into the vein emits radio waves, heating and closing the vein. After withdrawal, the closed vein is absorbed, and blood reroutes to healthier nearby veins.
    • Laser ablation: As in radiofrequency ablation, a thin fiber is inserted into the vein, heating and closing it. After removal, the closed vein is reabsorbed, and blood reroutes to healthier veins.
    • Ambulatory phlebectomy: During this office-based, outpatient procedure, superficial varicose veins are removed through small incisions without stitches. Local anesthesia is used for comfort, and patients can walk and resume normal activities immediately, with few restrictions.

    The Center for Vein Restoration (CVR) is a nationally recognized leader in treating chronic venous insufficiency, the root cause of varicose veins. CVR specializes in eliminating the aesthetic and physical discomfort associated with problem veins using a range of advanced and virtually painless solutions.

    CVR board-certified vein physicians are extensively trained in the most advanced vein treatment options, ensuring patients' safety and convenience. They customized treatment plans for each patient, ensuring a personalized approach to vein care.

    CVR accepts many insurances, including Aetna, Amerigroup, Anthem, Blue Cross/Blue Shield, Cigna, MultiPlan, Medicaid, Medicare, and more.

    Popliteal Vein Thrombosis and Vein Disease: The Bottom Line

    While both popliteal vein thrombosis and varicose vein disease involve issues related to vein health and blood flow, they differ in location, symptoms, and treatment strategies. Understanding these differences is crucial for appropriate diagnosis and treatment.

    Popliteal vein thrombosis is more directly associated with blood clots and complications, including pulmonary embolism, due to being a deep vein. Varicose veins, caused by weakened vein valves that allow blood to pool in the lower extremities, are often associated with pain, swelling, and discomfort. These enlarged and twisted veins can impact both the aesthetic appearance of the legs and the individual's quality of life, leading to feelings of heaviness or fatigue in the affected limbs. Varicose veins can also indicate underlying venous insufficiency or other circulatory issues that may require medical intervention.

    Center for Vein Restoration Helps Individuals with Vein Disease

    CVR is America’s largest physician-led vein center, with 120+ locations nationwide. We radically improve 200,000+ lives annually by providing safe, personalized, and positive outpatient treatment options for vein disease.

    Call 240-965-3915 to speak to a Patient Services Representative or schedule your consultation online at a CVR near you today.

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