Getting a leg up on varicose veins

They are unsightly. 

But more than being aesthetically displeasing, varicose veins can also cause real pain and if left untreated can lead to medical complications.

And they can happen to anyone, including Olympic athletes such as Summer Sanders, who won four medals in swimming, including two gold, at the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona.

While Sanders thought living a healthy lifestyle as an athlete would make her immune to such issues as varicose veins, she soon learned that wasn't the case.

"I was one of those people that when I found my varicose vein for the first time when I was pregnant with my son, I immediately had this feeling of, `Oh my gosh, I'm old,"' Sanders, 39, says.

"You know that this doesn't happen to us young women or men who are running around and active and doing things and what we consider to be living a healthy lifestyle, like, oh this doesn't happen to us. And it does. And it happens to over 30 million Americans - men and women."

In April, Sanders launched an educational campaign called Rethink Varicose Veins to encourage those suffering from the condition to learn more about it and to speak to a vein specialist about treatment options.

Also joining the campaign is the Society for Vascular Surgery, the American Venous Forum and the American College of Phlebology.

Varicose veins are veins that have lost their structural integrity so they appear to bulge out of the leg. They mostly occur in the lower legs, though they can appear in the upper legs as well.

While many people think they are just a cosmetic issue, they are actually a sign of venous disease, meaning the body's vein system is not working properly.

"There is a genetic predisposition to getting it. But the main pathology that usually causes them is that the valves in the surface vein system that normally prevent the blood from sort of regurgitating back down the lower legs as it's getting pumped back toward the heart in the veins, sometimes the valves fail," says Dr. Amir Kaviani, a vascular surgeon at the Association of South Bay Surgeons in Torrance.

"When the valves fail, between each of your heartbeats as the blood is trying to find its way back toward the heart it sort of settles and regurgitates downward and ends up pressurizing the vein system in the lower legs."

This causes the bulging appearance, pain and swelling. These symptoms occur when the patient has been standing for a significant period of time.

For example, though Sanders had varicose veins for years, it wasn't until March when she was on her feet for a number of days at Disneyland that she noticed the pain associated with the condition.

On the car ride back to her mother's house in Palm Desert, they had to stop three times so she could shake her leg, stretch it and massage her calf.

Sanders will attend the Olympics in London beginning later this month as a correspondent for Yahoo! so she knew she had to do something about the problem.

"I thought, this is ridiculous," Sanders says. "I thought ahead to the summer and I was like wait a second, I'm going to be on my legs all day, every day, for a solid 20 days over in London and it can't be like this, nor should it be like this."

Historically, the treatment for varicose veins was an invasive procedure called vein stripping, which included physically removing the entire affected vein.

A conservative treatment option is wearing compression stockings, which creates pressure against the veins, disallowing them to pressurize. But this method only treats the symptoms and not the actual problem since the veins will still bulge once the stockings are removed.

But now there's a more novel treatment called Venefit that uses radio frequency ablation. The procedure, which closes the veins, preventing blood from flowing through them, is minimally invasive and has no down time.

"It's a procedure that's much less traumatic, it's much less painful and I typically do a number of these a week on an outpatient basis. The treatment maybe takes 12 to 15 minutes from start to finish," Kaviani says.

"And patients are very happy because everything is done through something the size of the tip of a ballpoint pen in terms of the incision that's made on the leg, and it's a fairly safe procedure compared to the vein stripping."

After her Disneyland trip, Sanders sought out treatment and had the Venefit procedure done in April. Not only has the cosmetic appearance of the veins returned to normal, but the annoying pain and dullness is gone as well. And on top of that, she says, her legs feel lighter.

Palos Verdes Estates resident Frances Kupiec also had the procedure done, with Kaviani as her doctor. She had varicose veins for 20 years before searching out a treatment option.

She, too, says her legs felt lighter after the procedure and that the cosmetic appearance of the bulging veins has diminished.

"I was just telling my regular doctor how impressed I was with the procedure and the doctor in particular," Kupiec says. "I thought there was going to be a terrible down time and the doctor actually told me it was no big deal. And in fact, it really was no big deal."

The procedure was painless but more importantly, the pain associated with her varicose veins is gone.

If left untreated, varicose veins can lead to ulcerations around the ankle due to the increased pressure in the veins and against the skin. It can also cause discoloration of the skin.

Unfortunately, varicose veins are hard to prevent, but Kaviani encourages people who have jobs that require long periods of time standing on their feet to wear compression stockings.

And though many women think this, and some might argue otherwise, Kaviani says there is no scientific rationale that crossing your legs causes varicose veins.

Age, on the other hand, can be a factor.

"Just getting old itself is not a risk factor for having them, but certainly living long enough to allow for your valves to slowly have dysfunction increases your chance," Kaviani says. "But we don't see it typically in people that are younger than 30 to 35 years of age."

Having a child also seems to increase the incidence because of the compression of the central veins, says Kaviani.

Both Sanders and Kupiec first noticed their varicose veins during pregnancy.

"It's funny because my mom had it as well and so she's forever joked about the fact that varicose veins are hereditary, we get them from our kids, because she was pregnant with me when she got hers. So she's like, `You gave me my varicose veins,"' Sanders says.

"But this is not just a women's issue, I mean a lot of men suffer from varicose veins as well."

Since having the Venefit procedure, Sanders says, she can fly without having to get up and stretch or massage her calves constantly. She's looking forward to being on her feet at the Olympics and wants others to take control of their health as well.

Sanders wants women who have had them for an extended period to know the treatment options have changed, but she also wants younger women to recognize what is going on with their body and not let it get to a worsened stage.

The Rethink Varicose Veins website provides a step-by-step guide to help people figure out if they should seek out a vein specialist. It also helps visitors find a vein specialist nearby if they determine they need one.

"My biggest message is I'm encouraging my friends who are sitting at home right now feeling the same thing I am to be their own health advocate, and this stretches beyond varicose veins," Sanders says.

"Learn about what you're feeling, learn about your body because you don't want to live less than 100 percent. You want to feel great, and you can."