For those with spider veins or varicose veins, sailing into summer can be far from a breeze.
Heat and humidity can flare up pain and swelling from the veins. And shorts and swimsuits can cause some to feel self-conscious about the appearance of their legs.
But take heart—there are treatment options for everything, from minor spider veins to more serious varicose veins, according to Jennifer Watson, MD, a vascular surgeon with Spectrum Health Medical Group Vein Center.
For most people, spider veins are nothing more than a cosmetic condition, Dr. Watson said. Some people might not be bothered by them at all.
Bulging varicose veins, however, can signal a medical condition, as well as being downright uncomfortable.
“Spider veins are small, but varicose veins are larger with more blood pooling,” Dr. Watson said. “That’s where it gets a little more serious. Those become more medically important to treat because they can lead to skin damage and swelling.”
What causes these bothersome veins?
Every vein has small valves inside that need to move at a certain speed in order to pump the blood through the vein.
Spider and varicose veins form when blood pools in veins near the surface of the skin, Dr. Watson said.
The exact cause is unknown, but research points to various contributing factors, including genetics, pregnancy, hormones, obesity and age.
The best way to prevent spider and varicose veins from ever forming? Lead a healthy lifestyle, maintain a healthy weight and exercise regularly, Dr. Watson said.
“Extra weight is a strain on those veins,” she said. “And even if you lose the weight, the veins may not go back to normal.”
Exercise helps the calf muscles pump blood and move it through the legs.
Other tips for prevention:
- Avoid smoking.
- Wear compression socks if you’re standing or sitting in one position for a long period of time.
- Practice good skin care in the sun, as sunburn or heavy tanning can lead to spider veins by damaging the top layer of skin.
That said, there are some people who will be genetically predisposed to get spider veins even if they lead a perfectly healthy lifestyle, Dr. Watson said.
Some occupations make them difficult to prevent as well, such as hairstylists, assembly line workers, health care workers, restaurant servers and forklift drivers. Sitting all day at a desk job is hard, too.
If you work in one of those jobs, she highly recommends compression stockings to improve circulation.
“You can just incorporate them into your work uniform,” Dr. Watson said. “If you’re a medical professional, just put them under your scrubs or, if you work in a factory, wear them under your work boots.”
If you sit at a desk all day, she recommends a sit-stand desk.
“You want to vary that motion. Take time every hour or so to stretch or take a quick walk,” Dr. Watson said. “These are things that can also help prevent weight gain, so that’s a good thing, too.”
Another no-no: very high heels.
While research has shown that sitting with your legs crossed does not cause varicose veins, wearing high heels does. It inhibits the calf muscle from pumping blood through your legs, Dr. Watson said.
If you’ve already developed spider veins and the appearance is bothering you, she recommends seeing a vein specialist, dermatologist or plastic surgeon.
If your veins have progressed into bulging varicose veins, it’s even more important to see a doctor specializing in varicose veins, she said.
Once you notice swelling in the feet, ankle or legs—or if the veins are painful or bothersome on a regular basis—that’s a good time to seek care. If you see an ulcer, bleeding, or any break of the skin, treatment is even more important.
“At the end of the day, we will often notice a sock mark on our legs. If you think, ‘This is more than a sock mark,’ or your shoes aren’t fitting right, that’s a time to contact a doctor,” Dr. Watson said.
Today’s treatments are less painful and invasive than those of the past, she said. About 90% of the work can be done right in her office.
Treatment options include:
- Laser therapy, using light energy to eliminate spider veins
- Radiofrequency ablation, using heat to close a damaged vein
- Sclerotherapy, injecting medicine into a vein to make it shrink
- Surgery to actually remove the veins (much more rare)
While summer is a great time to come in for an evaluation, it might not be the best time to have some treatments, Dr. Watson said.
Some treatments require avoiding air travel or car rides over two hours. Others require avoiding sun exposure on the treated area for four weeks. Compression stockings are also required post-treatment, she said.
“Oftentimes, I talk with patients about the options in the summer and then I see them back in the fall,” she said. “Unfortunately, it took a while for the varicose veins to develop, and it’s also going to take some time for them to reabsorb after treatment.”
Those looking for immediate cosmetic solutions can have success with body makeups and self-tanners for the summer, she said.
Whatever your experience with spider or varicose veins, don’t hesitate to talk to your doctor, Dr. Watson said.
The Spectrum Health Medical Group Vein Center offers free screenings for those who have not been treated or diagnosed previously, during which an ultrasound technician will examine the veins and generate a report for the patient.
“It’s a good way to get a good check on the most common areas,” she said.