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The question: Do varicose veins pose a health risk and how can I get rid of them?

The answer: Varicose veins are enlarged veins near the surface of the skin that can cause uncomfortable symptoms of heaviness, pain, and can be cosmetically concerning for some. They are generally not dangerous and can be found in about 20 per cent of adults. While varicose veins are not life-threatening, their potential negative impact should not be dismissed.

To understand how to minimize varicose veins, let's review how they develop in the first place.

Our circulatory system is made of blood vessels known as arteries and veins. Arteries carry oxygen-rich blood from the heart to fuel our organs and muscles while veins return the blood to the lungs to get re-oxygenated. Veins have valves that prevent back flow of blood. When these valves become faulty, blood can pool and cause the veins to swell in size. When the veins stretch, they become visible under the skin. It's most common to see varicose veins on the legs and ankles, but they can occur on other parts of the body (i.e., haemorrhoids are varicose veins of the rectal area).

There are multiple reasons why the veins can become faulty. Being overweight, pregnant or standing for long periods of time can put pressure on veins and their valves. Varicose veins also tend to run in families and as we age, we are at higher risk of developing them.

Because of the potential cosmetic concern related to varicose veins, there are an abundance of creams and miracle cures that promise a quick fix. At this time, there is no good evidence for these remedies, so save your money and try these options instead:

  • Avoid crossing your legs when sitting
  • Get your circulation moving with regular exercise. Bonus: exercise will help you maintain a healthy weight that also helps with preventing varicose veins
  • Avoid standing or sitting for long periods of time. Take frequent breaks every 30 minutes to allow your blood to flow
  • Avoid tight clothing, especially around the waist
  • Try compression stockings. While they are not the most comfortable, they can be help to prevent pooling of blood in the veins. Consider investing in stockings especially if you stand or sit for long periods of time at work.

According to the Canadian Society for Vascular Surgery, while there are no medications that can shrink or repair varicose veins, there is some evidence that horse chestnut extract can decrease the pain. To get rid of veins, talk to your doctor about surgical options such as laser therapy, sclerotherapy (injection of medication into the veins to make them shrink) and surgical removal (stripping) of the vein. Since varicose veins are considered a cosmetic concern, these services may not be covered by your provincial health plan, so talk to your doctor about your options.

Dr. Sheila Wijayasinghe is the medical director at the Immigrant Womens' Health Centre, works as a staff physician at St. Michael's Hospital in their Family Practice Unit and at Hassle Free Clinic, and established and runs an on-site clinic at Women's Habitat Shelter in Etobicoke.

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