Varicose Veins

The word varicose comes from the Latin varix, meaning "twisted." The name fits: Varicose veins certainly appear twisted as they spread across your legs. The veins also become enlarged, or dilated.

You get varicose veins when the valves in the veins near the surface of your legs stop working properly. These valves have a tough job. They must move blood all the way up your legs, against the pull of gravity, until it reaches your heart. To do this, the valves rely on your leg muscles.

As you move, your leg muscles contract, pushing blood up through your leg veins. The valves lining the veins open up like tiny gates to allow the blood through. Then they snap shut to prevent blood from rushing back down to your feet. If a valve fails to close properly, blood pools in the vein, causing it to stretch. Eventually, it bulges toward the surface of the skin. This is what's known as a varicosity.

Technically, any vein in your body can become varicose. But the most vulnerable veins are located in your legs as well as around your anus. When an anal vein becomes varicose, it's called a hemorrhoid.

Varicose veins appear bluish or gray in color. They cause painful aching and swelling. If left untreated, they tend to get worse over time.

An estimated 80 million Americans have varicose veins. The condition is four times more common among women than among men. In most women, varicose veins first appear after age 50. But if you have a family history of them, they can appear much earlier-even in your twenties.

Besides gender, other factors can increase your risk of varicose veins. In fact, anything that impairs the movement of blood up your legs can make you more vulnerable. For example, if you're overweight, those extra pounds can compress your veins so that blood has a harder time passing through. The same is true if you're a mom-to-be-although varicose veins that develop during pregnancy usually go away on their own after delivery.

Another contributor to the formation of varicose veins is the overproduction of lysosomal enzymes. These enzymes break down the "cement" that holds your veins together. As a result, veins become enlarged, swollen, and twisted. Certain people are simply genetically predisposed to producing more lysosomal enzymes than normal.

While varicose veins usually aren't serious from a health standpoint, they can be painful and unsightly. Most people who get them want to make them go away-and the sooner, the better. Mainstream medical procedures work quickly, but they can't stop new varicose veins from forming. To do that, you need to follow a blended approach to treatment that includes some or all of the measures that follow.

Best Choices

Nutrition

Fight fibrin flavorfully. Fibrin is a substance that's naturally produced by your body. It gets deposited around varicose veins, causing the lumpy skin associated with the condition. According to Joseph Pizzorno Jr., N.D., garlic, onions, and ground red pepper contain compounds that help break down fibrin. To increase your intake of these foods, simply use them in your cooking.

Supplements

Help your veins with bromelain. An enzyme found in pineapple, bromelain is able to break down fibrin. If you want to try bromelain for your varicose veins, you can buy the enzyme in supplement form in health food stores and some drugstores. Take 500 milligrams three times a day, before meals, Dr. Pizzorno advises.

Exercise

Use your legs. Your leg muscles push blood through your leg veins up to your heart. If you sit or stand for long periods, those muscles don't contract much-and you're more likely to develop varicose veins. So move around as much as possible, says Alan P. Brauer, M.D. If you have a desk job or a job that requires you to stand in one place for long periods of time, use your break time to exercise your leg muscles.

Step lively. Walking is excellent exercise for people with varicose veins, says Anne Simons, M.D. It not only gets your blood moving but also helps you shed the extra pounds that contribute to varicose veins. She recommends walking at a moderate to brisk pace for 30 to 60 minutes every day.

Herbal Medicine

Get help from gotu kola. Its name sounds a lot like the famous cola. In fact, gotu kola has nothing to do with soft drinks. The herb has shown tremendous promise as a treatment for a condition called venous insufficiency, in which varicosities develop within the deep veins of the legs. Venous insufficiency is much more serious than varicose veins. But gotu kola can help both conditions, Dr. Pizzorno says. The herb works by reinforcing the "cement" that holds your veins and valves together, so they work more efficiently.

Many European studies have demonstrated that gotu kola is an effective treatment for venous insufficiency. In one study, French researchers gave 94 people with venous insufficiency either 60 milligrams or 120 milligrams of gotu kola or a placebo (a fake pill) every day. After 2 months, the people taking the placebo showed no changes in leg swelling or discomfort. But the people taking gotu kola did, with those on the larger dose reporting the greatest improvement.

Gotu kola extract capsules are available in health food and some drugstores. Follow the package directions.

Horse around with horse chestnut. Horse chestnut seeds have a long history as a folk remedy for varicose veins. The seeds contain a compound called aescin, which strengthens the walls of your veins and increases their elasticity. This, in turn, supports healthy blood flow.

Commission E, the German expert panel that evaluates the safety and effectiveness of herbal medicines, endorses horse chestnut extract as a treatment for varicose veins. Horse chestnut extract is not widely available in the United States, If you have access to the herb, use only a standardized extract and follow package directions.

Sweep away problems with butcher's broom. Butcher's broom, a shrubby herb that's native to the Mediterranean region, is another time-honored treatment for varicose veins. To test the herb's effectiveness, Italian researchers recruited 40 people with varicose veins and evaluated their symptoms of leg pain, swelling, and itching. Then each participant began taking either a preparation containing butcher's broom extract and vitamin C or a placebo three times a day. After 2 months, those who took the herbal preparation experienced significant improvement in their symptoms, and without side effects.

The people in the study were given 16.5 milligrams of butcher's broom extract and 50 milligrams of vitamin C every day. Generally, butcher's broom comes in higher doses in health food stores and drugstores. Follow the package directions.

Treat your veins "berry" well. Bilberries, also known as European blueberries, are rich in antioxidant compounds called anthocyanosides. These compounds strengthen the walls of your veins and reduce the production of lysosomal enzymes, which contribute to varicose veins. Several European studies have shown that bilberry extract improves circulation through the veins and decreases the discomfort of varicosities.

Naturopath Donald Brown, N.D., professor of herbal medicine at Bastyr University in Kenmore, Washington, recommends taking 80 to 160 milligrams of bilberry extract three times a day. Or if you prefer, eat lots of cherries, blackberries, and blueberries. These fruits contain the same antioxidant compounds as bilberries, so they may help treat and prevent varicose veins.

Home Remedies

Elevate your legs. To minimize the discomfort of varicose veins, sit with your legs raised above the level of your heart. This supports blood flow from your legs back to your heart.

Slip on supportive stockings. Wearing support hose can alleviate much of the discomfort of varicose veins. "The hose compress varicosities, so less blood pools in those veins;" says Alan Gaby, M.D. Put on your hose first thing in the morning-ideally, before you even get out of bed.

Give high heels the heave-ho. High­heeled shoes and cowboy-style high-heeled boots put tremendous stress on your calves-exactly what you don't need when you have varicose veins. Instead, wear sensible, comfortable flats, advises family practitioner Dudley Phillips, M.D., of Darlington, Maryland.

Other Good Choices

Homeopathy

Consider a combination. Homeopath Dana Ullman generally recommends Ledum palustre.

Homeopath Andrew Lockie, M.D., author of The Family Guide to Homeopathy, also suggests Carbo vegetabilis, Ferrum metallicum, Hamamelis, and Pulsatilla. To find out which of these medicines works best for you, consult a homeopath.

Chinese Medicine

Reinforce qi. Practitioners of Chinese medicine attribute varicose veins to a deficiency of qi brought on by overwork-that is, too much standing. This leads to a collapse of your veins. "The Lung organ network draws Blood back to the Heart," explains Efrem Korngold, O.M.D., L.Ac. "But with weakened qi, the Lung can't do its job. In addition, the Spleen is responsible for the integrity of your veins, so it needs strengthening, too:"

To treat varicose veins, Dr. Korngold prescribes herbs that strengthen qi as well as the Lung and Spleen. These herbs include astragalus root, licorice root, angelica (dang gui), black cohosh root, bupleurum root, and citrus peel.

Put on the pressure. To relieve the discomfort of varicose veins, try acupressure. Simply apply steady, penetrating finger pressure to each of the following points for 3 minutes.

  • Lung 9, located on the thumb side of your inner forearm in the hollow between the wrist bone and wrist crease
  • Spleen 6, located four finger-widths above your inner anklebone on the back inner border of your shinbone

If pressing the above points doesn't improve your symptoms, you may want to consult a certified acupuncturist. Sometimes professional needle stimulation can help even when finger pressure doesn't.

Medical Measures

If you're bothered by the appearance of your varicose veins, or if home treatment doesn't relieve your pain, you can have the veins reduced or removed with one of several medical procedures.

Small spider veins can often be treated with laser therapy. They can also be treated nonsurgically by injection therapy, or scle­rotherapy. In this procedure, your doctor injects a combination of fatty acids and salt water into the affected area. The solution causes the veins to collapse. The same method works well with small varicose veins.

The standard surgical treatment for varicose veins, called mini-phlebectomy or stripping, involves the complete removal of the affected veins. The surgeon makes several incisions, inserts a wire hook, pulls out the veins, and wraps the area in tight bandages. For this procedure, recovery time varies but can last up to several weeks.

After any of these mainstream treatments, doctors generally recommend walking several miles a day. Walking stimulates circulation and the growth of new, healthy veins.

Red Flags

Varicose veins raise your risk of phlebitis, a condition in which veins become painfully inflamed. Untreated, phlebitis can progress to thrombophlebitis, in which blood clots form in the affected vein. If a clot develops in a deep vein, a piece of it may break off and travel to your lungs-a potentially life-threat­ening situation. For this reason, if you experience painful swelling in either leg and the swelling doesn't go away when you elevate your leg, consult your doctor without delay.

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