I’m not clear on what exactly the veins do.
To understand the condition, it’s always important to understand the anatomy.
The heart can be thought of as two systems working in tandem to support the body. The heart contains chambers that connect to blood vessels that lead to either the lungs or the tissues and organs of the body. On average, adults contain approximately 5 liters of blood, a volume which varies based on factors such as sex and the impact of hormones.
Blood is sent to the lungs where it picks up oxygen that comes from the environment upon inhalation. The deoxygenated blood is now considered to be oxygenated, and travels back to the heart where it gets pumped out to the body. The oxygenated blood travels through large arteries that gradually branch and become smaller and smaller as they travel to tighter, smaller spaces. Much like a tree has a large central trunk that then branches in countless ways. Vessels carrying oxygenated blood pass through a capillary bed, where they exchange blood to feed the surrounding tissues, becoming deoxygenated and picking up waste before being brought back to the heart.
You can imagine that to push the blood through the vessels requires a lot of work from the heart, and the blood vessels have the ability to stretch and recoil. This recoil action acts like a rubber band, and helps push the blood forward through the vessels. As powerful as the heart might be though, gravity provides a gentle challenge.
What are varicose veins though?
The veins of the lower limb have to find a way to return blood to the heart, despite the forces of nature opposing them. However, evolution always finds a way. In order to move blood back to the heart, the veins rely on contractions by the adjacent skeletal muscle. When these muscles contract, they squeeze the vein and force the blood to move. This wouldn’t do much good though if the veins of the lower limbs weren’t equipped with one way valves.
These valves only allow the blood to travel towards the heart and prevent it from succumbing to gravity and pooling in the lower body. However, as you may already be wondering, what happens when these valves become deficient or damaged? You get varicose veins!
What causes varicose veins?
One of the simplest causes is related to aging. As the years tick by, blood vessels begin to lose elasticity and can no longer pump as efficiently, stretching as blood pools. The valves also become weaker and may fail to close completely, allowing blood to slip down, putting more pressure on the valve beneath to maintain its integrity.
With enough impaired valves, the blood can begin to pool, stretching and twisting the vessels into all sorts of shapes which can be seen and felt on the skin.
Like any muscle, those surrounding the veins may become fatigued with extended activity such as standing for long periods of time or, on the opposite end of the spectrum, remaining inactive for long periods of time. These both allow the blood to pool and may lead to swelling and stretched vessels.
Obese individuals will often develop varicose veins as a result of the greater amount of fatty tissue. This makes it more difficult to squeeze the skeletal muscle and cause the contraction necessary to move the blood. Additionally, the added weight puts more pressure on the lower limbs causing reduced flow and allowing fluid to pool. The added pressure contributes to muscle stress and leads to inflammation, reducing how effectively the muscles can contract and increasing the risk of developing a blood clot which may block a vein. This would prevent venous return to the heart and cause the part of the vessel upstream to the clot to distend and swell.
My job requires me to sit for long periods of time, what can I do if I can’t get moving?
Compression stockings will quickly become your new best friend. They place pressure on the legs, acting like a muscle contraction and enabling adequate blood flow back to the heart. The stockings can be worn throughout the day to help exaggerate the effect of your natural muscles. During the night, they can be removed as lying horizontal relieves the pressure of gravity from the valves in the lower limbs, therefore demanding less exertion from the heart.
These can help runners and athletes by reducing inflammation in the lower limbs and decreasing delayed-onset muscle soreness, but this should be a personal discussion with your doctor as the research remains in debate as to the extent of their benefit. These can also be beneficial for pregnant women by helping to mitigate nausea and vomiting as well as encouraging the return of blood to the heart and by extension, her little passenger. While infants in their mother’s belly get a free travel voucher for nine months, adults are expected to haul themselves onto a flight to get places…for shame.
Compression stockings can also benefit travelers who may be at risk of developing a blood clot with the long sitting times and general lack of movement…especially as leg room seems to be shrinking by the month!
While compression stockings can benefit a wide range of people, it is always recommended to speak with your primary care provider to determine whether they’re right for you. The stockings vary in pressure and length, and it’s important to determine the best fit or compression rating for your individual case. Some of the mild pressure stockings will only increase the local blood pressure by 8-15mmHg while extra firm pressure can increase it by as much as 30-40mmHg.
Additionally, your care provider can help diagnose any conditions that would make it detrimental for you to wear the stockings or limit their use from all day to periods of an hour for example. Those with forms of peripheral neuropathy, where sensations from the lower limbs are impaired, should avoid these devices as they may further compress the nerve and cause loss of feeling. In individuals with peripheral artery disease, the delivery of oxygen to tissues is decreased, and compression of the blood vessels can reduce crucial blood flow to the area.
While compression stockings are a fantastic choice, they remain far from the ONLY choice.
These stockings combined with a five-minute walk around the workplace every hour can help keep your blood pumping and also provides a mental reprieve from your current task. Exercise can also help improve the capabilities and strength of the heart as well as strengthen the lower limb muscles, causing the contractions to become less burdensome and more powerful.
Not everyone has the time to exercise, and wearing elastic fiber support stockings seems like a far cry on a hot summer day. In this case, one could turn to herbal remedies.
Horse chestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum) is a potent herb commonly used for toning the vasculature of the body. Aescin, a combination of saponins, provide the anti-inflammatory and anti-edematous actions of the herb.
By preventing the buildup of fluid in the lower limbs, otherwise known as edema, you’re helping the muscles. They don’t need to move all of that additional fluid in addition to the blood they are expected to send upwards.
Products such as Venaforce come in a gel which can be massaged on the legs in an upward motion to encourage venous return to the heart. They also come in tablets to provide both internal and external benefits.
Before starting your day, make it part of your routine to give yourself a great leg massage upwards with Venaforce gel, throw your compression stockings over top and include a tablet with your breakfast.
It’s important to note that the coumarin-like compounds in the herb may interact with anticoagulant medication, so always check with your primary care provider.