Harvard Women's Health Watch

Varicose veins: Searching for less-invasive treatments

These twisted, ropy veins are more than unsightly. They can cause real discomfort if you don't treat them.

Veins are the transportation system that carries blood back from our body to our heart. Most of that blood is returned via the deep veins (located in the muscles), and a smaller amount is delivered via the superficial system (which lies close to the skin's surface). Varicose and spider veins are superficial veins. "Because they're not surrounded by muscle like the deep vein system, they're more prone to damage," explains Dr. Susan O'Horo, an instructor in interventional radiology at Harvard Medical School.

During pregnancy, the weight of the uterus and fetus can begin the process that leads to varicose veins. As we get older, women can develop thickened, ropy varicose veins, which occur when the valves that keep blood flowing in one direction—toward the heart—weaken. Blood backs up and pools, making the veins bulge out like an overfilled hose. The distension of these veins can lead to symptoms such as pain and heaviness in the legs.

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