Harvard Heart Letter

Ask the doctor: What is venous insufficiency?

Q. I have been diagnosed with venous insufficiency. What does that mean?

A. Venous insufficiency means that some of your veins aren't working properly. This condition often develops after veins are damaged by an injury, surgery, or blood clot. Veins drain blood and fluid back to the heart, so people with venous insufficiency usually have symptoms caused by the buildup of fluid. Venous insufficiency most commonly occurs in the legs (varicose veins are one type of this condition), where its symptoms include

  • swollen or painful veins

  • swelling that worsens with prolonged standing

  • a sense of heaviness in the legs

  • throbbing, achy, or cramping pain

  • redness and irritation of the skin.

The treatment of venous insufficiency depends on why it has developed, where it has developed, and the symptoms it causes. In mild cases, simply elevating the legs appears to be helpful. Your doctor may recommend wearing support stockings, taking a diuretic (water pill) such as hydrochlorothiazide or furosemide, or using a mild steroid cream. Sometimes surgery is needed.

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