Your veins are vessels that carry blood from your body’s tissues to your heart where they pick up more oxygen and then recirculate throughout your body. The muscles in your legs aid in this process by contracting intermittently to help pump the blood upward, towards your heart. Each vein has tiny valves inside it to keep the blood flowing in the right direction; this one-way traffic prevents blood from flowing backwards or pooling in your in your legs. When a malfunction occurs in one or more of these valves, this becomes the common condition we call venous insufficiency or vein disease. Venous insufficiency is what causes varicose veins and spider veins and affects more than 30 million Americans.
Venous insufficiency, the cause of varicose veins and spider veins, indiscriminately affects more than 30 million Americans. However, several factors—ranging from family history to lifestyle habits—can increase your risk of developing this all-too-often often under-diagnosed disorder. People with a family history of varicose veins or spider veins, regardless of health or other factors, tend to have the highest risk of developing venous insufficiency but there exists several other groups that may be equally predisposed.
While age may increase your risk for venous insufficiency, younger people are not immune. One medical study showed that approximately 25 percent of venous insufficiency occurred in people under the age of 50. The normal wear and tear of aging may cause the valves inside your veins to weaken and begin to function improperly, explaining the general increased risk that comes with age. It is important to understand that the pain and discomfort often associated with venous insufficiency are not normal functions of aging and do not have to impact your quality of life. Venous insufficiency is a medical condition that can and should be treated.
Women tend to get varicose veins more often than men. Hormonal changes that occur during puberty, pregnancy, and menopause (or with the use of birth control pills) may raise a woman’s risk for developing varicose veins. A recent population study showed that about two thirds of varicose vein cases occurred in women, compared to just one third in men.
During pregnancy, a woman’s body goes through unprecedented physical and hormonal changes. As a baby grows, the uterus puts increased pressure on the surrounding veins. Hormonal changes can also cause the walls of the veins to relax or weaken. These factors can combine to cause healthy and normal one-way vein valves in a woman’s body to stop working properly. When this happens, blood that should return to the heart instead pools and stagnates, resulting in bulging varicose veins predominantly found in the legs. Studies have shown that a woman’s risk for this type of venous insufficiency increases with each pregnancy.
If your are an expectant mother, your doctor can recommend many ways to keep you comfortable during your pregnancy—including regular, moderate exercise, plenty of rest, support stockings, and keeping your legs elevated—especially during the evening. In these cases, it is best to wait at least three months postpartum to seek treatment for venous insufficiency.
Being overweight puts added pressure on the entire body—this includes your entire vascular system and its veins. Increased pressure can enlarge veins causing damage to the valves that keep your blood flowing upward, toward the heart. Often, people with weight problems do not get regular exercise, which can lead to general circulatory problems such as venous insufficiency. If you have a body mass index (BMI) over 25, you are at an increased risk for to developing uncomfortable and unsightly varicose or spider veins.
Standing for prolonged periods of time as a function of your profession or, likewise, sitting for an extended period—especially with your legs crossed—can increase your risk for venous insufficiency as this general lack of movement can lead to blood flowing backwards and pooling, causing varicose veins and spider veins.
Patients who have experienced a deep vein thrombosis (DVT)—a blood clot that forms in a vein deep within the body (commonly in the leg or thigh)—may have an increased risk for developing varicose veins and spider veins. You may have heard about DVT in relation to sitting still for long periods, such as on airplanes. Any history of DVT is always a good reason to get checked for underlying venous insufficiency.