Why do varicose veins usually appear on the legs?
Varicose veins are damaged veins that have begun to swell, stretch and leak. This occurs because the valves in the veins become damaged as a result of this swelling and stretching, allowing flood to flow backwards into the vein, causing further swelling, and sometimes leaking. This blood can begin to leak and pool into the surrounding tissues.
These veins most commonly appear in the lower legs. This is because the veins in this area have the difficult job of pushing blood against gravity towards the heart. Long periods of sitting or standing still can slow down blood flow, allowing blood to pool and forcing these veins to work harder to keep blood flowing.
However, in some cases varicose veins appear in other places around the body.
The appearance of varicose veins on the arms is unusual but can still happen. They occur here for the same reasons they do in the legs; damaged veins that begin to swell and leak blood. They are less common in the arms, however, because the veins in the arms don’t have to work as hard to get blood back to the heart as the veins in the legs do, and they aren’t working against gravity to the same extent.
Varicose veins can sometimes appear on both male and female genitals.
During pregnancy, women are naturally more prone to varicose veins. In some cases, these veins appear on the genitals. This is because the increasing weight of a baby puts pressure on the veins in the pelvis, and during pregnancy the volume of blood in your body increases, which further increases the pressure in the veins. In addition, the increase of progesterone during pregnancy causes blood vessels to relax, making it easier for them to stretch and swell.
The appearance of varicose veins on male genitals is also surprisingly common. These are called varicoceles and appear in the scrotum. About 15% of the male population have a varicocele, usually developing between the ages of 15 and 25. They are usually not serious but it has been noted that having a varicocele can, in some cases, decrease sperm count and quality, occasionally resulting in infertility.
Varicose veins of the rectum and anus are also known as haemorrhoids. These often also result from pregnancy for the same reasons that varicose veins can appear on the vulva and vagina during pregnancy; increased pressure from the heavy baby, increased pressure due to increased volume of blood and the relaxing of veins due to progesterone.
These kinds of varicose veins can also appear in people who aren’t pregnant. The most common cause is in this case excessive straining, for example because of constipation.
Varicose veins can also appear internally in the general pelvic area. This is also known as Pelvic Venous Congestion Syndrome (PVCS) and occurs in veins in the pelvis and around the ovaries. It can cause chronic pain in the lower abdomen and sometimes cause visible varicose veins to appear on the vulva or inner thigh.
Oesophageal Varices are varicose veins in the oesophagus. This kind of varicose vein is usually caused by liver damage. This damage, or cirrhosis, is often the result of excessive alcohol consumption or viral infections such as hepatitis. Scarring in the liver can cause blood flow to slow down, which can increase the pressure in the veins around the stomach and oesophagus. The veins in the oesophagus are close to the surface and so if they rupture they can begin to bleed, which can be dangerous.
Many of these occurrences of varicose veins can be treated or prevented by a range of self-help techniques.
- Firstly, ensure you get plenty of exercise to boost circulation. This could be running, cycling or swimming, or even something gentler such as walking or yoga. If you tend to sit and a desk or stand up all day, try to keep blood flowing through your legs by doing simple exercises: bending and stretching the knees or flexing the ankles can help improve circulation. Read our article on leg exercises to do at your desk for more tips
- In the case of haemorrhoids, try to relieve constipation by drinking plenty of water and eating plenty of fruit, vegetables and high fibre foods
- To avoid varicose veins in the oesophagus as the result of cirrhosis, try to cut down on alcohol intake to prevent unnecessary damage to the liver
- Elevating the affected area, if possible, can also help. For example if your varicose veins affect your genitals or rectum, elevating your hips slightly while lying down (on a few pillows, for example) to allow blood to flow back to the heart.
Are there any herbal remedies to help?
Horse chestnut is traditionally used to treat the symptoms of varicose veins. Though most commonly used to relieve aching, tired legs and leg cramps associated with varicose veins of the legs, horse chestnut may also relieve symptoms of varicose veins elsewhere in the body.
I recommend A.Vogel’s Venaforce tablets or Venagel. Venaforce is not suitable for pregnant women but Venagel may safely be used. Venagel is not for internal use, and should not be used on the genital area.
Conventional treatment may not be suitable for all instances of varicose veins, so it is best to speak to your GP about what treatment options are available to you if your varicose veins are worrying you, causing you discomfort or causing you pain. The range of treatment options for varicose veins is detailed on our treatments page.