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People don’t like how varicose veins look. But varicose veins also are evidence of a common condition called venous insufficiency that can be prevented and treated.

“There are things you can do for good circulation and healthy legs — as well as your heart and the rest of your body,” said Thomas Biggs, MD, medical director of United Vascular Clinic, part of Allina Health. “Watch your weight, stay active and don’t smoke.”

Age, obesity, smoking, multiple pregnancies, excessive standing and lack of exercise can put you at risk for venous insufficiency, Biggs said. You can also be born with it. Previous leg injuries or surgery, blood clots or phlebitis (a swollen and inflamed surface vein) also make you more likely to develop the condition.

What causes chronic venous insufficiency?

Arteries carry oxygen-rich blood away from the heart. Veins take blood back to the heart with the help of valves that open and close, plus pumping action from the calf muscles. If your valves are weak or damaged, blood can leak from deep veins and pool in veins near the skin’s surface. Without treatment, you may experience pain, swelling and leg ulcers.

While chronic venous insufficiency can be a major problem, it is rarely life-threatening. It differs from two other conditions that involve blockages and require immediate medical attention: peripheral artery disease (PAD) and deep vein thrombosis (DVT).

Pain from PAD, which is caused by cholesterol deposits in leg arteries, can start suddenly during walking and go away when you stop. With DVT, a blood clot in a deep leg vein causes pain and swelling that do not go away. DVT requires urgent medical attention. Blood thinners can dissolve these clots, which are most dangerous if they travel to the lungs.

Symptoms of venous insufficiency

Symptoms of chronic venous insufficiency tend to come on gradually after walking or standing and go away gradually. Symptoms may include:

  • swelling in legs and/or ankles
  • tight feeling in the calves or itchy, painful legs
  • leg heaviness
  • darker-colored skin, particularly near the ankles
  • varicose veins
  • leg ulcers

Content Source: Healthy Communities magazine, spring 2013
Review Date: 4/17/2013
Reviewed By: Thomas Biggs, MD, medical director of United Vascular Clinic

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