Leg health problems and vein disease affect approximately 80 million Americans. Most of us believe vein disease and leg health problems are unavoidable consequences of aging. While this may be true for many, you should know that the actual cause of most leg problems that occur in later life are rooted in the bodily changes that happened many years earlier.
There is more to vein problems than meets the eye. Up to 20% of women develop visible varicose veins during pregnancy. However, hidden vein damage can occur without any visible signs. It can lie undiagnosed for many years until the normal aging process allows previously weakened veins to develop into serious problems later in life.
Vein disease symptoms may range in severity from mild discomfort to total debilitation, depending on the progression of the problem. Once vein disease begins, it cannot be reversed, only treated.
Factors that can contribute to vein problems:
- Excess Weight
- Occupational Causes (such as excessive standing)
- Previous damage or inflammation of the vein system
In most cases, your personal risk of “vein disease” is determined by a combination of these factors. For that reason, it’s nearly impossible to predict with certainty how each person will be affected.
Understanding the Venous System
The Power of Gravity
The body’s circulatory system, specifically the thin walled veins, relies on the aid of muscle activity to help “push” oxygen-depleted blood from the feet back toward the heart. Nowhere is this activity more important than in the legs, where gravity pulls in the opposite direction of the returning blood flow.
Think of the human circulatory system as a water tower. It’s much easier for water to flow down than it is to go up. The weight of the water inside the tower also creats steadily increasing pressure closer to the ground. That’s why the lower extremities of our bodies, particularly the feet and ankles, frequently suffer from swelling and tingling after we stand for long periods of time.
In a properly functioning vein, tiny “one-way” valves move the blood upstream by opening and closing with the normal pulse from the arteries. Permanent vein damage can occur if vein walls become stretched or distended from constant pressure. As a result, valves may no longer close properly, allowing blood to flow back down to the lower extremities. Poor circulation, leg pain and permanent vein damage are likely.
When Veins Fail
The most common forms of vein damage are varicose and spider veins. In most cases the damage starts in smaller veins and slowly moves to the larger vessels (except in cases where there is a heredity weakness).
Not all vein damage is visible. Often the most noticeable symptoms of vein problems are numbness or tingling in the feet and ankles, swelling at night or leg pain after a long day on your feet.
If these kinds of problems are left unchecked, serious conditions can develop such as deep vein thrombosis, leg ulcers and edema. These conditions can actually be life-threatening if left untreated.
The superficial veins are the first component of the venous system and are visible just below the surface of the skin. The longest are largest of these veins, called the Great Saphenous Vein, is connected to the femoral Vein and courses down the medial (inner) aspect of the thigh and leg. The Smaller Saphenous Vein begins behind the knee and runs down the posterior (back) of the calf.
The second part of the venous system is composed of deep veins that run deep inside the leg muscles. The deep veins carry the greatest portion of blood from the legs to the heart and, depending upon a person’s posture, can hold as much as 70% of a body’s total blood volume. If the deep veins are obstructed, the superficial veins cannot function well.
The third component of the venous system is known as the perforating veins. Perforating veins connect the superficial veins and the deep veins. Because the blood flows faster through the deep veins, the blood in the superficial veins is pulled through the perforators and emptied into the deep veins. The location of the incompetent perforator vein will determine the area of the leg or ankle that is affected. Commonly the affected area ranges from the ankle bone to halfway up the calf.
The last unique feature of the veins is the valves, which play a critical role in helping blood flow through the veins to the heart. Like swinging doors, valves float open to allow blood to flow toward the heart and flap closed again to prevent the flow of blood back down the extremities. Veins’ thin walls contain elastic fibers and a muscular layer that can become overstretched and dilated. If the veins become dilated, the flap-like valves cannot completely close, making them incapable of preventing the back flow of blood down the leg. As a result, the blood may run downward and accumulate in the vessels of the lower leg.
Why Does the Change in Pressure Make So Much Difference?
The increased pressure helps to distend the veins. You can see this by doing an experiment with your hand. First, be sure there is no constriction around your arm or wrist, such as a watch. Now, while sitting upright, let your hand hang down to your side. See the veins in the back of your hand start to pop out? They are distended due to the column of blood from your shoulder to the back of your hand. Now, raise your hand level with your eyes. Watch the veins collapse. The pressure caused by gravity has been eliminated. The veins are no longer distended. Therefore, standing still creates a significant increase in pressure in the weak-walled veins and, in time, this can result in the overstretched state of varicose veins.
The heart is the point of reference in your circulation for the pressure effects from gravity. At all points below the heart, the pressure is increased because of gravity. The greater the distance below the heart, the greater the pressure will be. The pressure will be decreased at all points above the heart” the greater the distance above, the lower the pressure.
Furthermore, the increased pressure inside the veins while standing decreases the normal return of fluid from the tissues into the circulatory system. That is why sitting and standing for long periods causes swelling of the feet and ankles. The tissues literally fill up with fluids while you are standing and then empty into the veins when you are lying down. It’s the reason that swelling in the feet and ankles tends to disappear after a night’s sleep.
- Elevate Your Legs When Resting
- Raising your legs above your heart gives your veins a well-deserved break by allowing gravity to assist in returning blood.
- Avoid Standing for Extended Periods
- Remember, gravity pulls blood downward when standing, putting extra pressure on veins.
- Ask Your Doctor About Mild Leg Exercise
- Mild exercise utilized your legs’ muscles as a “muscle pump”, assisting the veins in pushing blood back toward your heart.
- Don’t Sit for Extended Periods of Time
- Long periods of inactivity, like car or plane trips, can cause blood to pool in the lower extremities.
- If you travel, get up and walk around every so often.
- Massage Your Legs at the End of the Day
- This produces many of the same benefits as mild exercise by assisting in blood circulation.
- Wear Graduated Compression Stockings
- mediven graduated compression stockings are specially designed to help leg veins maintain their resiliency. These stockings offer comfortable support for each part of you leg. They are often covered by insurance.