What to do with varicose veins and how to prepare legs for the beach

Did you recognize that big yellow ball of light that moved across the sky for part of the day over the last week or so? Someone told me it was the sun. I had almost forgotten about it.

Now that the weather may finally warm up, many of us (other than the knuckleheads who wore shorts throughout the winter), are thinking about putting the corduroy and wool pants away and digging out a few pairs of shorts. It really does feel like the end of hibernation for your legs after months and months of being bundled up in long underwear or tights.

But if you are one of the estimated 25 million Americans affected by varicose veins, you may not be looking forward to shorts’ season.

Many people dealing with varicose veins are embarrassed and self-conscious about their appearance. When a vein becomes varicose, most commonly in the legs and ankles, it bulges out from the skin’s surface and often takes on a twisted, rope-like appearance.

You arteries carry blood from your heart out to the rest of your body. And veins return that blood back to your heart so it can be recirculated. In order to return blood to your heart, the veins in your legs work against gravity. One-way valves in your veins keep the blood flowing from your legs up to your heart. However, when these tiny, delicate valves don’t work as well as they’re supposed to, blood collects in your legs and pressure builds up in the veins. If this occurs, veins can bulge, become enlarged and twisted, resulting in varicose veins that can also be uncomfortable.

Certain factors increase the likelihood of developing varicose veins. The risk of varicose veins increases with age, because of age-related wear and tear on the valves in the veins. Women are somewhat more likely to develop them than men. Being overweight or obese puts an added pressure on your veins. Sitting and standing for long periods of time can also promote varicose veins – the blood in your legs doesn’t flow as well when you’re in the same position for long periods of time. In addition, varicose veins can run in families.

Varicose veins and spider veins, which are a common, milder version of varicose veins, are a cosmetic concern for many people. But, the good news is that if you are self-conscious about your varicose veins, you don’t have to continue to keep covered up. You can do something about them now before summer begins.

Varicose vein treatment may involve self-care measures or procedures performed by a physician.

Some of the things you can do on your own to address varicose veins are relatively easy.

Self-care for varicose veins can include addressing some of the risk factors for them. That means exercising, losing weight, not wearing tight clothes, elevating your legs, and avoiding long periods of standing or sitting. Doing these things can ease pain and prevent varicose veins from getting worse.

If those remedies aren’t enough, your doctor may recommend that you wear compression stockings before trying more rigorous treatments. Wearing compression stockings all day gently but firmly squeeze your legs and can help your veins and leg muscles move blood back to your heart more efficiently. You can consult with your pharmacist to purchase compression stockings with the right characteristics for you. Some very nice, dressy support socks have been my norm for most of my medical career and really help during long days standing in the OR or making rounds.

If self-care and compression stockings don’t do the trick or if your condition is more severe, your doctor may recommend sclerotherapy or laser procedures.

Sclerotherapy is a procedure that involves injecting a chemical right into a varicose vein, which scars and closes the vein off. Treated veins usually fade in a few weeks, although the same vein may need to be injected more than once. Sclerotherapy is effective when done correctly and as a bonus, doesn’t require general anesthesia.

Your doctor may also opt to treat your varicose veins with lasers. This works by sending strong bursts of light into the varicose vein, causing it to slowly fade and disappear.

Regardless of which form of treatment you have, you don’t need to hide your legs this summer.

Dr. Alfred Casale is chairman of surgery for the Geisinger Heart Institute, co-director of the Cardiovascular Service Line for the Geisinger Health System and Associate Chief Medical Officer for the Geisinger Wyoming Valley Medical Center. Readers may write to him via ttllifestyle@timesleader.com.