Unlike arteries, veins have flaps inside called valves. When your muscles contract, these valves open, moving blood through the vessels. When your muscles relax, the valves close so the blood can only flow in one direction. Muscle contractions in your lower legs act as pumps, and elastic vein walls help blood return to your heart. Tiny valves in your veins open as blood flows toward your heart then close to stop blood from flowing backward. If these valves are weak or damaged, blood can flow backward and pool in the vein, causing the veins to stretch or twist.
Damaged valves don’t close the way they should when your muscles relax, allowing blood to flow in both directions, and it can pool, causing varicose veins. Arteries carry blood from your heart to the rest of your tissues, and veins return blood from the rest of your body to your heart, so the blood can be recirculated. To return blood to your heart, the veins in your legs must work against gravity.
Varicose veins may bulge like purple ropes under your skin and can also look like small red or purple bursts on your knees, calves, or thighs. These spider veins happen because of swollen small blood vessels called capillaries. After a day of activity, your legs might ache, sting, or swell.
Spider veins are similar to varicose veins, but they’re smaller and are found closer to the skin’s surface, often red or blue. Spider veins occur on the legs, but can also be found on the face. They vary in size and are often described as having a spider web appearance.
Signs and symptoms occur, they may include:
- An achy or heavy feeling in your legs
- Burning, throbbing, muscle cramping and swelling in your lower legs
- Worsened pain after sitting or standing for a long time
- Itching around one or more of your veins
- Skin discoloration around a varicose vein
Self-care — such as exercise, elevating your legs or wearing compression stockings — can help you ease the pain of varicose veins and may prevent them from getting worse. But if you’re concerned about how your veins look and feel, see your doctor.
These factors increase your risk of developing varicose veins:
- The risk of varicose veins increases with age.
- Women are more likely to develop the condition. Hormonal changes during pregnancy, premenstruation or menopause may be a factor because female hormones tend to relax vein walls. Hormone treatments, such as birth control pills, may increase your risk of varicose veins.
- Family history
- Standing or sitting for long periods of time
There’s no way to completely prevent varicose veins, but improving your circulation and muscle tone may reduce your risk of developing varicose veins or getting additional ones. The same measures you can take to treat the discomfort from varicose veins at home can help prevent varicose veins, including:
- Watching your weight
- Eating a high-fiber, low-salt diet
- Avoiding high heels and tight hosiery
- Elevating your legs
- Changing your sitting or standing position regularly