Varicose veins are colored, ropy protrusions, usually on your legs, that result from an inefficient circulatory system. While they may be more of a cosmetic issue, they can be the start of a cascading system failure, so you shouldn’t ignore them.
At Eterna Vein & Medical Aesthetics in Puyallup, Washington, vein specialist Dr. Mark Kim and our staff see a lot of cases of varicose veins, and we’re passionate about educating our patients about vein disease, its causes, and its consequences.
One thing many people aren’t aware of is how being overweight or obese can play a role in developing varicose veins, so we’ve taken this opportunity to explain.
The foundation of vein disease
Within your circulatory system, arteries move oxygenated blood from the heart to the rest of your body, and veins return deoxygenated blood back to the heart. In some ways, veins have a harder job, since they have to move the blood against the pull of gravity.
Your body compensates for this in two ways: the calf and thigh muscles contract to force the blood forward, and the veins use one-way valves that snap shut once the blood has passed, preventing backflow.
In a perfect world, that would be that, but it’s not a perfect world. The vein walls and the valves can become damaged, either due to injury or high blood pressure. When that happens, the valves can’t close completely, so the blood is free to backtrack along its path.
As the blood pools around the damaged valves, flow becomes sluggish, and the veins swell. When the veins are near the skin’s surface, they present as varicose veins. This state of sluggish flow is known as chronic venous insufficiency (CVI), and it affects up to 40% of US adults.
Varicose vein symptoms
Varicose veins are large veins close to the skin’s surface that bulge significantly when blood flow becomes sluggish. Depending on their severity, they may cause:
Itching (vein fluid leaks into tissues)
Bleeding (easily ruptured)
Edema (swelling) in the legs and ankles
A “heavy” feeling in the legs
Varicose veins can also cause a number of serious health problems, including:
Stagnant blood leads to swelling and painful, open wounds that heal slowly and risk becoming infected, especially severe for diabetics.
Small blood clots in surface veins make the skin feel hard, hot, swollen, and tender.
Deep vein thrombosis (DVT)
Larger clots create a condition called deep vein thrombosis in your deeper veins, and the clots may dislodge and travel to the lungs, blocking the airway, which is a life-threatening emergency.
Because of the risk of complications, if you have varicose veins, you should always seek medical attention.
How obesity can play a role in varicose veins
Researchers have noted that vein disease is often worse in obese patients than their thinner counterparts, and this may be true for a couple of reasons.
First, obesity increases your risk of many forms of heart disease, including high blood pressure. Higher pressure leads to more stress on the vein walls, and that can cause damage and lead to CVI.
Obesity also increases your lipid and cholesterol levels, and these substances can collect on the artery and vein walls, forming a plaque and narrowing them. Because of this, the heart has to pump harder to push the same amount of blood through, once again increasing blood pressure.
Second, obesity can have a more direct effect on the veins in the lower body. Large amounts of fat in the abdomen press more strongly against the abdominal wall, compressing the pelvic veins and potentially impinging on the veins in the groin. This impingement leads to sluggish blood flow in the legs and feet — venous insufficiency, which can then cause varicose veins.
If you want to learn more about how obesity affects your vein health, or if you want to follow up on your vein health, give Eterna Vein & Medical Aesthetics a call at 253-268-3400, or request a vein screening online today.