Radiologist discusses causes, treatments of varicose veins

On a summer day, many people like to wear shorts to get some relief in the heat. But for people with varicose veins, the idea of wearing shorts can lead to more anxiety than comfort.

Varicose veins affect about 25 percent of women and 15 percent of men in their lifetime, and there are many ways they can be treated.

UCLA interventional radiologist Dr. Cheryl Hoffman discusses the causes of varicose veins and the treatments that are available.

What are varicose veins?

"Varicose veins can form when the vein valves that move blood back to the heart malfunction, causing swelling and inflammation," says Hoffman. "The veins then become dilated due to the abnormal blood flow."

Varicose veins most commonly occur in the legs, where gravity and other factors make the normal flow of blood returning to the heart more difficult.

Many people with varicose veins often report that they are painful, uncomfortable, and unsightly.

Why do I have them?

"Your genes are the number one factor contributing to your risk for developing them," says Hoffman.

When one or both parents have varicose veins, your risk for them increases.

Other contributing factors include pregnancy, obesity, older age, prolonged standing, and physical inactivity.

What do I do about them?

The first thing Hoffman recommends is more physical activity. When we walk, the contraction of the calf muscle helps circulate blood back to our heart, alleviating the buildup that contributes to varicose veins.

For this reason, Hoffman also recommends compression socks or stockings, which will aid with the circulation of blood.

When those measures aren't enough, doctors can treat the varicose veins with a number of minimally invasive procedures:

  • Endovenous thermal ablation is a treatment that uses heat and a laser to close off a vein that is not functioning properly, redirecting blood flow through other veins.
  • Mechanochemical ablation is a non-thermal ablation that uses a rotating catheter and a drug to close off the varicose vein.
  • Phlebectomy uses a series of tiny incisions in the skin to physically remove the affected veins.
  • Sclerotherapy uses an injection of a specific chemical to make the veins shrink.
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