Varicose veins

Varicose veins are superficial veins that have become enlarged and twisted.[2][1] Typically they occur just under the skin in the legs.[3] Usually they result in few symptoms but some may experience fullness or pain in the area.[2] Complications may include bleeding or superficial thrombophlebitis.[2][1] When varices occur in the scrotum it is known as a varicocele while those around the anus are known as hemorrhoids.[1]

Varicose veins
Leg affected by varicose veins
SpecialtyVascular surgery, dermatology[1]
SymptomsNone, fullness, pain in the area[2]
ComplicationsBleeding, superficial thrombophlebitis[2][1]
Risk factorsObesity, not enough exercise, leg trauma, family history, pregnancy[3]
Diagnostic methodBased on examination[2]
Differential diagnosisArterial insufficiency, peripheral neuritis[4]
TreatmentCompression stockings, exercise, sclerotherapy, surgery[2][3]
PrognosisCommonly reoccur[2]
FrequencyVery common[3]

Often there is no specific cause.[2] Risk factors include obesity, not enough exercise, leg trauma, and a family history of the condition.[3] They also occur more commonly in pregnancy.[3] Occasionally they result from chronic venous insufficiency.[2] The underlying mechanism involves weak or damaged valves in the veins.[1] Diagnosis is typically by examination and may be supported by ultrasound.[2] In contrast spider veins involve the capillaries and are smaller.[1][5]

Treatment may involve life-style changes or medical procedures with the goal of improving symptoms and appearance.[1] Life-style changes may include compression stockings, exercise, elevating the legs, and weight loss.[1] Medical procedures include sclerotherapy, laser surgery, and vein stripping.[2][1] Following treatment there is often reoccurrence.[2]

Varicose veins are very common, affecting about 30% of people at some point in time.[3][6] They become more common with age.[3] Women are affected about twice as often as men.[5] Varicose veins have been described throughout history and have been treated with surgery since at least A.D. 400.[7]

Signs and symptoms

  • Aching, heavy legs.[8]
  • Appearance of spider veins (telangiectasia) in the affected leg.
  • Ankle swelling, especially in the evening.[8]
  • A brownish-yellow shiny skin discoloration near the affected veins.
  • Redness, dryness, and itchiness of areas of skin, termed stasis dermatitis or venous eczema, because of waste products building up in the leg.
  • Cramps[9] may develop especially when making a sudden move as standing up.
  • Minor injuries to the area may bleed more than normal or take a long time to heal.
  • In some people the skin above the ankle may shrink (lipodermatosclerosis) because the fat underneath the skin becomes hard.
  • Restless legs syndrome appears to be a common overlapping clinical syndrome in people with varicose veins and other chronic venous insufficiency.
  • Whitened, irregular scar-like patches can appear at the ankles. This is known as atrophie blanche.


Most varicose veins are reasonably benign, but severe varicosities can lead to major complications, due to the poor circulation through the affected limb.

  • Pain, tenderness, heaviness, inability to walk or stand for long hours, thus hindering work
  • Skin conditions / dermatitis which could predispose skin loss
  • Skin ulcers especially near the ankle, usually referred to as venous ulcers.
  • Development of carcinoma or sarcoma in longstanding venous ulcers. Over 100 reported cases of malignant transformation have been reported at a rate reported as 0.4% to 1%.[10]
  • Severe bleeding from minor trauma, of particular concern in the elderly.
  • Blood clotting within affected veins, termed superficial thrombophlebitis. These are frequently isolated to the superficial veins, but can extend into deep veins, becoming a more serious problem.
  • Acute fat necrosis can occur, especially at the ankle of overweight people with varicose veins. Females have a higher tendency of being affected than males.


How a varicose vein forms in a leg. Figure A shows a normal vein with a working valve and normal blood flow. Figure B shows a varicose vein with a deformed valve, abnormal blood flow, and thin, stretched walls. The middle image shows where varicose veins might appear in a leg.
Comparison of healthy and varicose veins

Varicose veins are more common in women than in men and are linked with heredity.[11] Other related factors are pregnancy, obesity, menopause, aging, prolonged standing, leg injury and abdominal straining. Varicose veins are unlikely to be caused by crossing the legs or ankles.[12] Less commonly, but not exceptionally, varicose veins can be due to other causes, such as post-phlebitic obstruction or incontinence, venous and arteriovenous malformations.[13]

Venous reflux is a significant cause. Research has also shown the importance of pelvic vein reflux (PVR) in the development of varicose veins. Varicose veins in the legs could be due to ovarian vein reflux.[14][15] Whiteley and his team reported that both ovarian and internal iliac vein reflux causes leg varicose veins and that this condition affects 14% of women with varicose veins or 20% of women who have had vaginal delivery and have leg varicose veins.[16] In addition, evidence suggests that failing to look for and treat pelvic vein reflux can be a cause of recurrent varicose veins.[17]

There is increasing evidence for the role of incompetent perforator veins (or "perforators") in the formation of varicose veins.[18] and recurrent varicose veins.[19]

Varicose veins could also be caused by hyperhomocysteinemia in the body, which can degrade and inhibit the formation of the three main structural components of the artery: collagen, elastin and the proteoglycans. Homocysteine permanently degrades cysteine disulfide bridges and lysine amino acid residues in proteins, gradually affecting function and structure. Simply put, homocysteine is a 'corrosive' of long-living proteins, i.e. collagen or elastin, or lifelong proteins, i.e. fibrillin. These long-term effects are difficult to establish in clinical trials focusing on groups with existing artery decline. Klippel–Trenaunay syndrome and Parkes–Weber syndrome are relevant for differential diagnosis.

Another cause is chronic alcohol consumption due to the vasodilatation side effect in relation to gravity and blood viscosity.[20]


Clinical test

Clinical tests that may be used include:

  • Trendelenburg test–to determine the site of venous reflux and the nature of the saphenofemoral junction


Traditionally, varicose veins were investigated using imaging techniques only if there was a suspicion of deep venous insufficiency, if they were recurrent, or if they involved the saphenopopliteal junction. This practice is now less widely accepted. People with varicose veins should now be investigated using lower limbs venous ultrasonography. The results from a randomised controlled trial on patients with and without routine ultrasound have shown a significant difference in recurrence rate and reoperation rate at 2 and 7 years of follow-up.[21]


The CEAP (Clinical, Etiological, Anatomical, and Pathophysiological) Classification. developed in 1994 by an international ad hoc committee of the American Venous Forum, outlines these stages [22][23]

  • C0 no visible or palpable signs of venous disease
  • C1 telangectasia or reticular veins
  • C2 varicose veins.
  • C3 edema
  • C4a pigmentation or eczema
  • C4b lipodermatosclerosis, atrophie blanche
  • C5 healed venous ulcer
  • C6 active venous ulcer •Each clinical class is further characterised by a subscript depending upon whether the patient is symptomatic (S) or asymptomatic (A) e.g. C2S.[24]


Treatment can be either conservative or active.


Active treatments can be divided into surgical and non-surgical treatments. Newer methods including endovenous laser treatment, radiofrequency ablation and foam sclerotherapy appear to work as well as surgery for varices of the greater saphenous vein.[25]


The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) produced clinical guidelines in July 2013 recommending that all people with symptomatic varicose veins (C2S) and worse should be referred to a vascular service for treatment.[26] Conservative treatments such as support stockings should not be used unless treatment was not possible.

The symptoms of varicose veins can be controlled to an extent with the following:

  • Elevating the legs often provides temporary symptomatic relief.
  • Advice about regular exercise sounds sensible but is not supported by any evidence.[27]
  • The wearing of graduated compression stockings with variable pressure gradients (Class II or III) has been shown to correct the swelling, nutritional exchange, and improve the microcirculation in legs affected by varicose veins.[28] They also often provide relief from the discomfort associated with this disease. Caution should be exercised in their use in patients with concurrent peripheral arterial disease.
  • The wearing of intermittent pneumatic compression devices have been shown to reduce swelling and increase circulation
  • Diosmin/hesperidin and other flavonoids.
  • Anti-inflammatory medication such as ibuprofen or aspirin can be used as part of treatment for superficial thrombophlebitis along with graduated compression hosiery – but there is a risk of intestinal bleeding. In extensive superficial thrombophlebitis, consideration should be given to anti-coagulation, thrombectomy, or sclerotherapy of the involved vein.
  • Topical gel application helps in managing symptoms related to varicose veins such as inflammation, pain, swelling, itching, and dryness.



Stripping consists of removal of all or part the saphenous vein (great/long or lesser/short) main trunk. The complications include deep vein thrombosis (5.3%),[29] pulmonary embolism (0.06%), and wound complications including infection (2.2%). There is evidence for the great saphenous vein regrowing after stripping.[30] For traditional surgery, reported recurrence rates, which have been tracked for 10 years, range from 5–60%. In addition, since stripping removes the saphenous main trunks, they are no longer available for use as venous bypass grafts in the future (coronary or leg artery vital disease).[31]


Other surgical treatments are:

  • CHIVA method is the ambulatory conservative haemodynamic correction of venous insufficiency. As of 2015 there is tentative evidence of benefits with a relatively low risk of side effects compared to vein stripping.[32]
  • Ambulatory phlebectomy
  • Vein ligation is done at the saphenofemoral junction after ligating the tributaries at the sephanofemoral junction without stripping the long saphenous vein provided the perforater veins are competent and absent DVT in the deep veins. With this method, the long saphenous vein is preserved.
  • Cryosurgery- A cryoprobe is passed down the long saphenous vein following saphenofemoral ligation. Then the probe is cooled with NO2 or CO2 to −85o F. The vein freezes to the probe and can be retrogradely stripped after 5 seconds of freezing. It is a variant of Stripping. The only point of this technique is to avoid a distal incision to remove the stripper.[33]


A commonly performed non-surgical treatment for varicose and "spider" leg veins is sclerotherapy, in which medicine (sclerosant) is injected into the veins to make them shrink. The medicines that are commonly used as sclerosants are polidocanol (POL branded Asclera in the United States, Aethoxysklerol in Australia), sodium tetradecyl sulphate (STS), Sclerodex (Canada), Hypertonic Saline, Glycerin and Chromated Glycerin. STS (branded Fibrovein in Australia) liquids can be mixed at varying concentrations of sclerosant and varying sclerosant/gas proportions, with air or CO2 or O2 to create foams. Foams may allow more veins to be treated per session with comparable efficacy. Their use in contrast to liquid sclerosant is still somewhat controversial. Sclerotherapy has been used in the treatment of varicose veins for over 150 years.[10] Sclerotherapy is often used for telangiectasias (spider veins) and varicose veins that persist or recur after vein stripping.[34][35] Sclerotherapy can also be performed using foamed sclerosants under ultrasound guidance to treat larger varicose veins, including the great saphenous and small saphenous veins.[36][37]

A 1996 study reported a 76% success rate at 24 months in treating saphenofemoral junction and great saphenous vein incompetence with STS 3% solution.[38] A Cochrane Collaboration review[35] concluded sclerotherapy was better than surgery in the short term (1 year) for its treatment success, complication rate and cost, but surgery was better after 5 years, although the research is weak.[39] A Health Technology Assessment found that sclerotherapy provided less benefit than surgery, but is likely to provide a small benefit in varicose veins without reflux.[40] This Health Technology Assessment monograph included reviews of epidemiology, assessment, and treatment, as well as a study on clinical and cost effectiveness of surgery and sclerotherapy.

Complications of sclerotherapy are rare but can include blood clots and ulceration. Anaphylactic reactions are "extraordinarily rare but can be life-threatening," and doctors should have resuscitation equipment ready.[41][42] There has been one reported case of stroke after ultrasound-guided sclerotherapy when an unusually large dose of sclerosant foam was injected.

Endovenous thermal ablation

There are three kinds of endovenous thermal ablation treatment possible: laser, radiofrequency, and steam.[43]

The Australian Medical Services Advisory Committee (MSAC) in 2008 determined that endovenous laser treatment/ablation (ELA) for varicose veins "appears to be more effective in the short term, and at least as effective overall, as the comparative procedure of junction ligation and vein stripping for the treatment of varicose veins."[44] It also found in its assessment of available literature, that "occurrence rates of more severe complications such as DVT, nerve injury, and paraesthesia, post-operative infections, and haematomas, appears to be greater after ligation and stripping than after EVLT". Complications for ELA include minor skin burns (0.4%)[45] and temporary paresthesia (2.1%). The longest study of endovenous laser ablation is 39 months.

Two prospective randomized trials found speedier recovery and fewer complications after radiofrequency ablation (ERA) compared to open surgery.[46][47] Myers[48] wrote that open surgery for small saphenous vein reflux is obsolete. Myers said these veins should be treated with endovenous techniques, citing high recurrence rates after surgical management, and risk of nerve damage up to 15%. By comparison ERA has been shown to control 80% of cases of small saphenous vein reflux at 4 years, said Myers. Complications for ERA include burns, paraesthesia, clinical phlebitis and slightly higher rates of deep vein thrombosis (0.57%) and pulmonary embolism (0.17%). One 3-year study compared ERA, with a recurrence rate of 33%, to open surgery, which had a recurrence rate of 23%.

Steam treatment consists in injection of pulses of steam into the sick vein. This treatment which works with a natural agent (water) has similar results than laser or radiofrequency.[49] The steam presents a lot of post-operative advantages for the patient (good aesthetic results, less pain, etc.)[50]

ELA and ERA require specialized training for doctors and special equipment. ELA is performed as an outpatient procedure and does not require an operating theatre, nor does the patient need a general anaesthetic. Doctors use high-frequency ultrasound during the procedure to visualize the anatomical relationships between the saphenous structures. Some practitioners also perform phlebectomy or ultrasound guided sclerotherapy at the time of endovenous treatment. Follow-up treatment to smaller branch varicose veins is often needed in the weeks or months after the initial procedure. Steam is a very promising treatment for both doctors (easy introduction of catheters, efficient on recurrences, ambulatory procedure, easy and economic procedure) and patients (less post-operative pain, a natural agent, fast recovery to daily activities).


This condition is most common after age 50.[51] It is more prevalent in females. There is a hereditary role. It has been seen in smokers, those who have chronic constipation, and in people with occupations which necessitate long periods of standing such as lecturers, nurses, conductors (musical and bus), stage actors, umpires (cricket, javelin, etc.), the Queen's guard, lectern orators, security guards, traffic police officers, vendors, surgeons, etc.[52]


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