Home | What are the Symptoms & Causes of Varicose Veins?

What are the Symptoms & Causes of Varicose Veins?

Varicose veins, also known as spider veins and broken capillaries, is a relatively common ailment that affects the legs. Many of us don’t know that we are affected by the issues that cause varicose veins until they start to present themselves, usually manifesting on the calves and thighs.

Varicose veins typically present themselves as blue or purple swollen lines beneath the skin. If you notice the signs of varicose veins, it can be quite distressing. However, varicose veins are rarely a cause for concern, nor are they a serious threat to your health. That said, most consider them unsightly and a cause of pain and tenderness. In some cases, they can cause aches and pains that disrupt sleep and impinge on day-to-day life. Although varicose veins cannot be cured, there are a number of treatments that can mitigate their appearance and effects.

Here, we’ll look at the symptoms and causes of varicose veins as well as potential varicose vein treatments that can alleviate their symptoms.

The symptoms of varicose veins

It’s important to recognise the symptoms of varicose veins as early as possible. People experience a range of different symptoms when they have varicose veins. Before we take a closer look at the causes of this condition, it’s worth looking closely at the symptoms you may experience.

Keep in mind that varicose veins are not always visible. Sometimes, a person may experience pain, tenderness and discomfort but the varicose vein is located too deep in the muscle tissue or be too early in its varicosity to be visible.  These include:

  • Veins that appear lumpy, twisted or bulging
  • Swelling in the feet and ankles
  • Throbbing or burning sensations in the legs
  • Muscle cramps in the legs
  • Dryness around the affected vein

Veins that appear lumpy, twisted or bulging

Varicose veins often cause pain and discomfort, but not always. Keep an eye out for any veins that appear raised and lumpy. They may also feel tender to the touch. Varicose veins can occur anywhere on the body, but most commonly appear on the ankles, calves and thighs. Usually, you will only experience varicose veins in one leg.

Swelling in the feet and ankles

Varicose veins can stymie the flow of blood through the extremities. As such, you may experience a general swelling in the calves, feet and ankles. This can be exacerbated in hot weather as the body tries to cool itself.

Throbbing or burning sensations in the legs

As swollen veins press down on the surrounding tissues in your leg or foot, they often cause a throbbing pain, or a burning sensation that worsens with standing for long periods of time and during exercise.

Muscle cramps in the legs

One of the most distressing symptoms of varicose veins is that they can cause sudden and often painful leg cramps. These are especially pronounced when lying in bed at night and can interfere with sleeping patterns.

Dryness around the affected vein

Varicose veins can cause the skin above and around them to become thin, dry and itchy. Ulcers and inflammation can also occur. This is called ‘stasis dermatitis’ and commonly occurs when blood flow to the legs is obstructed.

The causes of varicose veins

Within the veins that carry blood to the heart are valves called valvula venosa. When these weaken or become damaged it can prevent the flow of blood to the heart. When this happens, the veins can become stretched or twisted as blood flows backwards and pools into them. This is most likely to occur in the legs and feet where veins are working against gravity to return blood to the heart.

Varicose veins can occur in virtually anyone, they can also indicate other health or lifestyle problems. There are a number of factors that can increase a person’s risk, including:

  • Gender and hormones
  • Family history
  • Weight
  • Age
  • Pregnancy
  • Job / lifestyle

 Gender and hormones

Although men can also get varicose veins, women are generally at a greater risk. Female hormones can relax the walls of the veins. As such, women face a greater risk of developing varicose veins during menopause or pregnancy, and even when hormones change prior to a period.

Family history

Your risk of developing varicose veins is significantly increased if someone in your immediate family also suffers from the condition.


Those who are severely overweight put more pressure on their veins to pump blood to the heart. As such, there’s a greater risk of blood pooling in the extremities and causing varicose veins.


As we get older, wear and tear can weaken the valves that control blood flow to the heart. As such, our risk of varicose veins may increase in our later years.


When a woman becomes pregnant, her body increases its volume of blood to better nourish the foetus. However, this combined with hormonal changes can increase a woman’s chances of getting varicose veins.

Job / Lifestyle

Those with a sedentary lifestyle who spend most of their says sitting both at work and at home are more likely to get varicose veins. This is because the veins have to work harder to force the flow of blood back to the heart from a sitting position. Those who spend a lot of time standing in the same spot are also more at risk for the same reason. Even wearing restrictive clothing can impede circulation and put more pressure on the valves in the veins.

How to treat varicose veins

For many, varicose veins (while unsightly) are not a cause for concern. However, if they cause constant pain and discomfort or prevent restful sleep, a course of varicose vein treatment should be sought as soon as possible.

Although varicose veins cannot be prevented or cured in the conventional sense, there several treatments that can mitigate their appearance and symptoms.

These include:

  • Microsclerotherapy—  Here, a chemical is injected into the affected vein that causes it to collapse. The body then absorbs the vein and reroutes blood flow through a healthier vein. This is the most common treatment for varicose veins.
  • Endothermal ablation— Using radio waves (radiofrequency ablation) or lasers (endovenous laser ablation) to seal the afflicted veins.
  • Foam sclerotherapy—  Under anaesthetic, an ultrasound-guided injection of foam is introduced into the veins to scar them and seal them shut.
  • Surgery— In some cases where the above treatments are not suitable, the afflicted vein can be removed surgically. The procedure is called ‘ligation and stripping’. The vein is tied off and then removed. This is done under general anaesthetic.