We often think of varicose veins and spider veins as a condition that only affects older people but the fact is that it can be an issue for those in their twenties too, especially where there is a family history of microcirculatory disorders.
Unlike varicose veins, thread veins are small and usually not raised, forming instead a spidery appearance of blue or red lines across the surface of the skin. These may be limited to just one or two little lines on the thinner skin of the face or legs, or a large area resembling a complex tree-branch patterns across the skin in these areas.
What Causes Varicose Veins and Thread Veins?
Varicose veins are caused by weak valves or damage to the valves in the veins that then leads to improper venous return of blood to the heart. The muscles in the legs squeeze these veins to pump blood back up to the heart where it is reoxygenated and pumped back out to the rest of the body.
As the veins in the legs have to work against the flow of gravity to squeeze the blood back to the heart they have valves that are designed to prevent blood reversing its flow in these blood vessels. Damage to the valves can, therefore, result in blood pooling in the veins and causing them to bulge, or even resulting in blood clot formation and deep vein thrombosis.
Factors in Spider Vein Formation
Over time, weak blood vessels can distort and even burst, causing veins to enlarge and push against the skin. Spider veins are smaller veins that are closer to the skin and which may weaken through this pooling of blood or as a result of trauma to the skin, sun damage, or even hormonal changes.
High blood pressure and other problems with the cardiovscular system, as well as excessive or chronic alcohol consumption can also impair capillary health and lead to the development of spider veins which may also resemble rosacea.
Who Gets Varicose Veins?
Around half of women and just under half of men over the age of fifty have varicose veins to some degree. Younger people are more likely to develop varicose veins and thread veins early if they:
- Have particularly sedentary lifestyles
- Are genetically predisposed to circulatory problems (i.e. have parents with lots of varicose veins)
- Are dangerously obese (which may also lead to a lack of movement)
- Spend a lot of time in the sunshine, especially if sunburn occurs
- Are taking certain medications such as birth control, oestrogen, or progesterone
- Are pregnant, as blood volume increases and places extra pressure on veins
- Often sit crosslegged or with bent legs, putting increased pressure on veins
- Have a job involving sitting or standing for long periods of time, where there is little movement of the leg muscles to encourage venous return.
Pregnancy and Varicose Veins
Pregnancy is often a factor in early onset of varicose veins and thread veins as the amount of blood in your body increases dramatically when pregnant, causing extra pressure on the veins. The stretching of the uterus as the baby develops also places causes increase vein compression. The enlargement of the veins tends to lessen a few months after giving birth, although each additional pregnancy increases the likelihood of varicose veins.
Symptoms of Thread or Varicose Veins
Thread veins or spider veins do not usually cause pain or other symptoms but they can sometimes indicate a problem with deeper circulation in which case similar symptoms of more apparent varicose veins are often experienced. The most common symptoms of varicose veins include:
- A dull ache in the legs that worsens when sitting or standing for extended periods
- Leg cramps or a throbbing sensation
- A heavy feeling in the legs
- Swollen, distended legs, feet and/or ankles, or facial swelling in some cases
- Restless legs, particularly at night after being on your feet all day
- Itchiness, irritation, and even a burning sensation in the skin, especially in the ankles
- Change in skin tone to a darker shade (usually in progressive, severe, cases).
In most cases varicose veins are uncomfortable and can impact self-esteem because they may appear unsightly, but there are not usually a serious health concern in themselves. They can, however, indicate a more serious problem with circulation or even lead to open sores and infections.
People with varicose veins may end up limiting their physical activity due to fear of exacerbating the condition, a reluctance to exercise in public, and/or the possible pain or heaviness in the legs from varicose veins. Spider veins are usually not a serious problem, although they can create anxiety over appearance, especially if they are on the face.
In some cases varicose veins can result in ulcer formation and open sores that often do not heal until circulation is improved and the pooling or backing up of blood flow through the affected vein(s) is addressed. Bleeding is also a possible complication of varicose veins and larger areas of spider veins, especially when there is trauma to the skin in an area where the veins are already weakened.
Blood clots are also much more common in areas where blood pools, as platelets begin to clump together and a clot can form on the wall of the vein. These clots may break down and cause no further problems but in some cases they can dislodge and end up travelling through smaller and smaller blood vessels until they cause a blockage that results in ischaemia where surrounding cells are unable to be provided with blood and die.
Some strokes, heart attacks, and lung problems result from this kind of blockage and resulting tissue damage through lack of oxygenation, with some ischaemic events such as a blood clot travelling to the lungs, heart, or brain proving fatal.
Symptoms of a superficial thrombophlebitis include redness in the skin, pain and swelling, and a firm, warm, and tender vein due to a blood clot just below the skin’s surface. Deep vein thrombosis may cause few, if any symptoms, although a ‘pulling’ sensation in the leg is possible, along with swelling, pain, warmth, and redness.
As well as prescription anticoagulants (blood-thinners), and vitamin K (which is essential for the blood to clot), there are other things that play a role in determining the likelihood of blood clots forming. These include our intake of foods containing natural salicylates (similar to aspirin), omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin E, and natural antibiotic substances.
A natural approach to improving the health of your veins will involve limiting intake of some foods and increasing consumption of others, with those on medications needing to exercise caution and discuss dietary changes with their physician to optimise safety.
It is important to see a doctor about your varicose veins if any of the following apply or occur:
- Veins are swollen, red, very tender and/or warm to the touch
- A sore of rash appears at the ankle on the leg or on the face
- Your skin colour changes at the ankle, or skin becomes thicker
- The veins begin to bleed or are very prone to bruising
- The achiness, heaviness, or other symptoms of varicose veins affects daily activity
- You are experiencing distress because of the appearance of varicose veins or spider veins.
Although doctors will usually reiterate that varicose veins and spider veins are rarely problematic in themselves, physicians do appreciate that some cases require further investigation and that patients can suffer quite significantly with the effects of varicose veins. It is always important to try to reduce risk factors for varicose veins as these are also risk factors for a variety of other conditions, such as cardiovascular disease, heart attacks, strokes, diabetes, and respiratory issues.
Diagnosing Varicose Veins
To diagnose varicose veins it is likely that your physician will assess the appearance of your legs when standing, sitting, and when your legs are dangling from the examination table. In most cases an ultrasound or other diagnostic imaging will not be necessary but some patients do have such scans to check the blood flow in their veins and blood vessel health and structure, especially if there is a suspicion of blood clots.
Some patients will also undergo a venogram which can provide a more detailed assessment of venous blood flow in order to identify problems. After receiving a diagnosis of spider veins or varicose veins there are many options for treatment, both surgical and non-surgical, including natural approaches to improving circulatory health, strengthening blood vessels and reducing the risk of blood clot formation.
Preventing Thread Veins
The main contributing factors in the development of varicose veins and thread veins are simple gravity, weakening veins, and increased pressure on the veins, be it from extra blood during pregnancy, postural issues, or a poor diet and lifestyle choices like smoking or excess drinking.
There is some evidence to suggest that certain flavonoids found in berries can be protective against varicose veins and spider veins, as can other phytochemicals from foods included in a heart-healthy diet. Having a diagnosis of spider veins can help rule out other skin conditions, such as rosacea, as the cause of skin abnormalities on the face or even the ankles.