What are they?
These are known as varicose veins – swollen blood vessels that can twist and bulge that mostly form in the lower half of the body.
How do they form…and why in the lower body?
The body is a machine that never quits. In order to supply the various components of the machine, the production line runs 24/7 to ensure everything remains in working order. At the heart of things is…well…the heart!
The heart is formed of various layers, the largest of which is the myocardium or muscular layer. This layer pumps to ensure all of the precious blood travels to the lungs to exchange carbon dioxide and oxygen and travel to the various tissues to supply them with said oxygen and take away their waste products.
It’s important that the blood gets returned to the heart in a timely fashion, otherwise the body has to compensate for a lack of blood volume in the heart. Gravity is constantly working on our bodies and blood to hold it close to the Earth. With this knowledge in mind, why doesn’t all of our blood pool in our feet? In the veins of the lower limbs, you have one way valves that strictly allow the blood to pass upwards towards the heart, preventing the fluid from moving downwards. When these valves fail, that is medically known as venous insufficiency and can lead to blood pooling in the area of the failure.
Why are they so closely tied to pregnancy?
The average human body contains approximately 4.5 – 5.5 liters of blood. When the woman becomes pregnant, she has to accommodate for the additional passenger growing in her womb. Amongst the many changes that occur such as an increase in abdominal size, hormone levels, and increased appetite is the increase in blood volume…by as much as 50%. This is to accommodate the development of the fetus’ circulatory system and the connection between the umbilical cord between mother and fetus.
As one can imagine, the addition of so much blood puts a lot of pressure on the heart and lungs. The mother’s heart increases its cardiac output or the amount of blood pumped per minute by also increasing her heart rate. This pressure on the valves in the lower limbs increases the risk of valve failure and the subsequent formation of varicose veins.
Do our hormones play any role in varicose veins?
Actually yes! The woman begins to produce a hormone known as relaxin. The function of this hormone may not surprise you as it relaxes blood vessels around the body, causing them to expand. This is another way the mother accommodates for the additional blood her body is producing to nourish the child. Imagine trying to fit an additional liter of water in a two-liter jug that’s almost full and you can probably already picture the mess…but if that jug could stretch and accommodate the additional fluid then you avoid a major issue.
This will also dilate the veins in the lower limbs, making them wider and potentially creating a small opening between the flaps of the valves.
Will they disappear on their own?
While they can be difficult to prevent because of the inescapable increase in blood volume, they tend to shrink like the rest of you following birth. This coincides with relaxin and blood volume returning to normal levels which causes the vessels to recoil back to their typical shape and places less pressure on the veins respectively.
Can I do anything to help blood flow back towards the heart?
Veins in the lower limbs are surrounded by the powerful muscles of our legs. When they contract, they open the veins and encourage blood flow upwards. This is why those who lead a sedentary lifestyle are often at higher risk of blood clots. With the weight gain that occurs during pregnancy, the pressure on that lower body can also cause the legs to swell, introducing tiny openings between the valves. Here are some tips to avoid the condition:
- The addition of compression stockings can help control the swelling of the lower limbs and act to contract the muscles and vessels in the lower limbs. This keeps the flaps of the one-way valves from opening and potentially leaking fluid.
- Avoid remaining in the same position for extended periods of time. As mentioned, any movement will help contract the muscles, open the valves, and force blood towards the heart.
- Despite the growing tummy in the way, elevating your feet against the wall or up on the couch or chair while you lay on the ground relieves pressure on the lower limbs. This can be done multiple times a day.
- For some herbal help, one could try the herb Aesculus hippocastanum, more commonly known as horse chestnut. This potent herb has historically been used for toning the blood vessels throughout the body and controlling the build-up of fluid that could result in varicose veins. Products such as Venaforce come in tablet, liquid, and gel form. The gel can be massaged into the legs in an upward motion to follow the natural flow of blood. Always check with your primary care provider when adding a new product to your regime as it may interact with your medication.