So-called spider veins on the legs are an extremely common problem in women. These small reddish, purplish or blue veins are usually regarded as unsightly. Many people have the mistaken notion spider veins are caused by crossing the legs. Scientific studies have revealed the real reasons responsible for the development of these veins are genetic factors, hormonal factors, and lifestyle factors.
Some individuals are genetically predisposed to develop prominent, abnormal leg veins. Just like we inherit hair, eye and skin color from our parents, so too, we inherit a tendency to have “weak” or “strong” veins. Even if you are prone to vein disorders for genetic reasons, there are things you can do in the area of lifestyle changes to help prevent problems.
Women have more venous disease than men. The reason for that is hormonal. Estrogen and progesterone, two hormones that are involved in the menstrual cycle in women, have a tendency to cause blood vessels to dilate. When leg veins dilate, blood tends to pool at the lowest point in the system, i.e. around the feet and ankles, and the venous blood is not returned to the heart as efficiently. This is one reason women tend to get swelling of their legs and ankles with pregnancy.
Prolonged standing or sitting causes blood to pool in the legs and keeps the veins in a distended state. When the veins are constantly stretched and distended, they begin to sprout new little veins, look for the path of least resistance. The other bad thing that happens when blood pools in the leg veins without moving on through and returning to the heart is a tendency for the blood to clot (called thromboplebitis). Blood clots in the legs can have serious consequences, especially if a piece of the clot breaks off and travels to the lungs (called a pulmonary embolus).
Fortunately, our bodies have evolved a very efficient pump to help the venous blood move from the legs back to the heart. Our foot and calf muscles serve as the pumping system, which expel blood from the leg veins toward the heart. Exercise of the lower extremities, particularly weight-bearing activities that involve flexing the ankle, activates the calf muscle pump. Daily walking, ideally for at least 30 minutes, strengthens the muscles so that they become more efficient in pumping blood out of the legs.
Raising the feet above the level of the heart for 15-30 minutes several times a day is helpful for the venous system because it takes pressure off the leg veins. Unfortunately, this is impractical for most people, but if you get the opportunity, go ahead and put your feet up for a few minutes to let gravity help drain the leg veins.
The main favor you can do for your veins is to wear compression stockings. Wearing them promotes blood return from the legs to the heart, decreases the chance of blood clots forming in the legs veins and reduces the formation of new spider veins. Most people notice less leg fatigue at the end of a long day when they wear compression stockings. Wearing compression stockings also helps the treated veins to regress faster and more completely after treatment with sclerotherapy. Make sure you buy stockings with graduated compression every day; the next best thing is to at least wear an over-the-counter “support hose.” On days in which you’ll really be on your feet all day or experience prolonged sitting such as plane or car trip, go ahead and wear the stronger medical compression stockings. Then you will have “happy legs” at the end of the day.
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