A common concern for women, especially during pregnancy, are those dreaded varicose and spider veins that normally form in the lower leg or calf region.
They occur when superficial veins become swollen, tortuous and twisted, and fill with blood due to a failure of the leaflet valves that normally work to keep blood moving back to the heart (known as retrograde flow).
As the valve can no longer close properly, blood pools in the vein, causing it to enlarge, which creates the unsightly appearance of purple veins in the legs (although they can also occur elsewhere on the body).
These valves may have been defective from birth, or the increased abdominal pressure from carrying a baby may have caused them to occur. Obese people are also more likely to suffer from this condition.
Other causes include standing for prolonged periods of time and thrombophlebitis, a swelling of the vein caused by a blood clot. Menopause, ageing, a leg injury, abdominal straining and crossing legs at the knees or ankles can also cause varicose veins to form.
More than unsightly
Aside from the cosmetic problems, varicose veins can often be painful, especially when standing or walking. Other symptoms include a feeling of fullness, heaviness or aching in the legs, as well as mild swelling around the ankles.
Whitened, irregular scar-like patches known as atrophy blanche can also appear at the ankles. A brownish-blue discoloration of the skin at the affected area may appear and cramps may develop, especially when making a sudden move. The area may itch and scratching the scars can cause ulcers, but serious complications are rare.
Treating varicose veins
There are numerous treatments available to get rid of varicose veins, some surgical and others that are far less invasive.
For a start, avoid standing for prolonged periods and raise your legs when resting or sleeping. Sufferers often use compression garments to help ‘squeeze’ the blood back up the leg, and help the leaflet valves do their job.
Medication can also form part of a treatment plan, but only if your doctor prescribes them as there is a risk of increased bleeding when using products like aspirin.
More serious conditions may require a medical or surgical intervention such as sclerotherapy, laser and radiofrequency ablation, or vein stripping or lipodermatosclerosis, which removes hardened layers of the dermis that may be blocking the blood flow. Less invasive treatments aim to seal the main leaking vein on the thigh to stop the back flow.
But before you reach that point, try exercising or changing the type of exercise you do, as this can help to alleviate the problem.
Regular exercise is an effective way to prevent varicose veins from forming in the first place as the muscle pump action of your leg muscles helps to squeeze the blood back up to your heart.
The more forceful contractions experienced during exercise reduce blood pooling in the legs, and may strengthen the walls of the veins, thereby preventing varicose veins from forming or at least reduce their severity.
Exercise also plays a secondary role in the prevention of varicose veins as it helps to prevent or combat some of other factors that can cause the condition, including obesity, blood clots and other cardiovascular conditions.
And exercise strengthens your cardiovascular system, which improves blood pressure and circulation.
The best exercise for combating varicose veins are generally those that predominately incorporate the legs such as walking, running and cycling.
Weight training is also a great way to increase the muscle pump action of your leg muscles, but excessively heavy weight training can force the blood back through the valve due to the pressure exerted, so moderate the intensity of your workouts.
Author: Pedro van Gaalen
When he’s not writing about sport or health and fitness, Pedro is probably out training for his next marathon or ultra-marathon. He’s worked as a fitness professional and as a marketing and comms expert. He now combines his passions in his role as managing editor at Fitness magazine.