Varicose veins are colored, ropy swellings that most commonly appear on your thighs and lower legs. While they’re often just a cosmetic issue, they’re caused by an inefficient circulatory system, which means they can be the start of more significant problems if you don’t get them treated.
At Eterna Vein & Medical Aesthetics, vein specialist Dr. Mark Kim and our staff see a lot of cases of varicose veins at our office in Puyallup, Washington, and we take educating our patients about vein disease, its causes, and its consequences very seriously.
Of the many factors contributing to vein disease, many people aren’t aware of how being overweight or obese can can start the ball rolling, so we’re taking this opportunity to explain.
How vein disease gets started
Your circulatory system is a closed loop with two major pathways — the arteries that move oxygenated blood from the heart to the body, and the veins that return deoxygenated blood to the lungs and the heart. Veins in your legs have the more difficult job, since they have to move the blood against the pull of gravity.
Built into the venous system are two mechanisms that help compensate for the problem. First, your calf and thigh muscles contract to force the blood upward. And second, the veins contain one-way valves that close once the blood passes by, preventing backflow.
Unfortunately, the system doesn’t always work perfectly. Injury or high blood pressure can damage the vein walls and the valves. If that happens, the valves can’t close completely, and the blood can backtrack along its path.
As blood pools around the damaged valves, overall flow becomes sluggish, and the veins engorge with the stagnant blood. When the veins are large and close to the skin’s surface, what you see is varicose veins. This state of inadequate blood flow is called chronic venous insufficiency (CVI), and it affects up to 40% of adults in the United States.
Varicose vein symptoms
Varicose veins may just be an eyesore, or they can lead to symptoms, including an aching “heaviness” in the lower legs and ankles, itching as fluid leaks into nearby tissues, and swelling from the stagnant blood and fluid buildup.
Varicose veins can also lead to more advanced stages of vein disease, including:
Small blood clots develop in surface veins, making the skin feel hard, hot, swollen, and tender.
Deep vein thrombosis (DVT)
Sluggish blood flow can lead to large clots in the deep leg veins that further impede blood flow. The bigger risk of DVT, though, is if the clots (or pieces of them) break free of the vein wall and make their way to your lungs. There, they can block your airway, causing a life-threatening emergency.
These painful, open wounds heal slowly and risk becoming infected. The problem is especially severe for diabetics, who may also be dealing with peripheral nerve damage and can’t feel when even a small cut becomes a large wound.
Because of the risk of complications, you should always seek medical attention for your varicose veins.
The link between obesity and varicose veins
Researchers have found that vein disease, starting with varicose veins, is often worse in obese patients than their thinner counterparts. This may be due to a few factors.
First, there’s a known risk with obesity for heart disease, and that includes high blood pressure. As we mentioned, high pressure leads to more stress on the vein walls, causing damage and leading to CVI.
Second, obesity increases your lipid (fat) and cholesterol levels, and these substances can clump together, along with calcium, proteins, and cellular debris, on the artery and vein walls. The clump forms a plaque, narrowing the conduits. That means the heart has to pump harder to push the same amount of blood through the system, once again increasing blood pressure.
Third, obesity can have a direct effect on the veins in the lower body. Large amounts of fat stored in the abdomen increase the pressure against the abdominal wall, compressing the pelvic veins that run through it. This compression leads to sluggish blood flow in the legs and feet — venous insufficiency.
If you’re obese, or if you’re experiencing any of the symptoms of varicose veins, it’s time to come into Eterna Vein & Medical Aesthetics for a vein screening and proper treatment. Call our office at 253-268-3400, or book your vein screening online today.