Varicose veins are common, affecting over 30% of men and women over the age of 16 years in the UK.1 The majority of people with this condition only ever experience mild symptoms, but serious complications can occur.
In this article, we take a closer look at the topics below to answer the question, “Are varicose veins dangerous?”:
- How varicose veins form
- Who is most at risk of developing varicose veins and associated complications
- Symptoms to look out for
- What to do if you are concerned about your vein health
How do varicose veins form?
Varicose veins occur when the vein walls lose elasticity, causing the one-way valves that pump blood back to the heart to weaken. Blood pools in the vein, creating high pressure and making the vein swell and enlarge.
What serious conditions are associated with varicose veins?
A person with varicose veins may, in rare cases, develop one or more of the conditions described below.
A cut or knock to the leg may cause a surface varicose vein to rupture. In most cases, you can stem the bleeding by applying basic first aid. However, the high pressure in the vein can make it difficult to stop the flow. When this happens, immediate medical advice should be sought.
When blood pools in veins and stops flowing, there is a risk of it thickening and clotting, which can lead to complications:
- Superficial thrombophlebitis – a clot in a vein close to the skin’s surface that causes it to become inflamed, hot, hard and lumpy. If the clot migrates to a deep vein, it can progress to become a deep vein thrombosis (DVT).
- Deep vein thrombosis – a painful clot within a deep vein in the leg. This condition is serious. There is the potential for a piece of the clot to break off into the bloodstream and migrate to the lungs (pulmonary embolism), which can be life-threatening.
Can varicose veins cause any other conditions?
Yes. The pooling of blood in varicose veins can cause something called chronic venous insufficiency (CVI). This is when the oxygen, nutrients and waste exchange between your skin and blood is disrupted over a long period. CVI can lead to:
- Varicose eczema – patches of skin over the affected vein that become red, itchy and scaly.
- Lipodermatosclerosis – the development of fragile, pink or brown skin above the affected vein. These areas of skin are scarred and hard to the touch, vulnerable to injury and can progress to become leg ulcers.
Who is at risk?
There is significant scientific evidence to indicate that the following factors can increase a person’s risk of developing varicose veins:
- A family history of varicose veins
- Being overweight
- Sitting or standing for long periods
Further research is needed to establish whether the link between varicose veins and other conditions is due to a common set of risk factors.
Symptoms to look out for
The earlier you have your varicose veins diagnosed and treated, the less likely you are to develop complications.
If you have any of the following symptoms, you may have varicose veins, in which case, it is worth having a full diagnosis from a venous specialist:
- Aching, throbbing, ‘heavy’ or restless legs
- Dry, itchy skin or burning sensation around the affected vein(s)
- Discomfort when standing for long periods
- Muscle cramping in the legs
- Discolouration of the lower leg
You may also have hidden varicose veins if you have thread (spider) veins, even if you do not have any of the symptoms described above.
Learn more about the link between spider veins and varicose veins >>
Symptoms of more serious conditions associated with varicose veins
If you experience any of the following symptoms concerning your varicose veins, seek medical advice:
- Dark patches of skin, sores or ulcers on the skin adjacent to the vein
- Persistent swelling and pain in the leg
- Painful veins that are hot to the touch
Symptoms of a pulmonary embolism
A common symptom of a pulmonary embolism is gradual or sudden shortness of breath. It may be accompanied by some or all of the following symptoms:
- Chest pain
- Irregular heart rate and/or rapid pulse
- Lightheadedness, dizziness or fainting
- Coughing up blood
If you develop shortness of breath, with or without any other symptoms, you should seek immediate medical advice.
What should I do if I think I have varicose veins?
If you are concerned about your leg vein health, you should see a venous specialist who can diagnose your condition and discuss the most suitable treatment option(s) with you. There are two ways to go about this:
- See your GP – the NHS will only treat varicose veins if they present with the risk of serious complications. If your GP does not have concerns, and you would like to have your veins treated for cosmetic reasons or to ease symptoms, you can ask to be referred to a private specialist consultant for further investigations.
- See a private specialist venous consultant surgeon – go directly to a highly qualified specialist who can diagnose and treat your venous condition using the most suitable procedure. In most cases, varicose veins do not require surgery. They can be treated using minimally invasive walk-in-walk-out procedures that produce fast, long-lasting results.
How can Premier Veins help?
Our specialist team provides safe, cost-effective walk-in-walk-out treatments for varicose veins and thread veins in a range of locations across the Midlands. Come and see us for a free, no-obligation mini-consultation where you will be able to:
- Meet the team that would be treating you.
- Discuss the treatment options that we offer, their costs and what they would involve.
- Ask any questions that you have about treatment and follow-up.
Booking your free mini-consultation is easy. Simply click on the link below, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or call our friendly reception team on 0121 769 2646.
* CJ Evans, FG Fowkes, CV Ruckley, AJ Lee. Prevalence of varicose veins and chronic venous insufficiency in men and women in the general population: Edinburgh Vein Study. J Epidemiol Community Health 1999;53:149-53