Be Vain About Your Veins: Why Vascular Health Matters
Most of us hardly think about our veins until they start giving us trouble, like unsightly and painful varicose veins. Although we can’t usually see or feel them, we still need to think about vein health before we end up facing a life-threatening condition.
Our circulatory system
In the body, blood circulates through three types of vessels that make up the transportation section of our cardiovascular system. Each has a unique role:
- Veins move blood to the heart, using valves to regulate the flow. Vein problems usually occur in the feet and legs – the farthest from the heart.
- Arteries move blood from the heart to the rest of the body. They are fueled by pressure from the heart. Blood pressure issues, which can worsen as we age, are related to the arteries.
- Capillaries are tiny vessels that connect the veins and arteries. They typically cause few problems, but broken capillaries can be unsightly – they appear close to our skin and are often referred to as “spider veins.” They worsen with age.
Veins work with arteries to move blood toward and away from the heart. “It’s a round-trip to and from home, with home being the heart,” says Dr. Judith Lin, director of the Henry Ford Vein Centers. In the legs, veins mostly go up the body, and arteries go down toward the feet.
As with just about everything, veins change as we get older. Veins of older adults are less flexible and less elastic than younger patients, Dr. Lin says. Although varicose veins are not life-threatening, complications such as pain, bleeding, skin changes, sores and blood clots may occur.
Veins work against gravity to get blood from our farthest extremities – the toes – to the heart. When veins become enlarged and twisted, blood can slow down and back up, creating backward flow of blood in the legs, which causes varicose veins. Symptoms include heaviness, achiness, swelling, throbbing, itching and cramps, Dr. Lin says. In some cases, sores may form at the ankles. Veins often bulge and have a bluish tint.
While people of any age can get varicose veins, they become more common with age. And they are often hereditary. “About half of all people who have varicose veins have a family history of them, and children with two parents with varicose veins have a 90 percent chance of developing them in their lifetimes,” Dr. Lin says. Other factors include standing for long periods and being overweight. Taller people have a slightly increased risk because their veins have to work harder to push the blood up.
In most cases, discomfort is the primary concern with varicose veins, but they require treatment because they can cause blood clots and slow the healing of leg and ankle wounds.
Treatment includes compression stockings and vein ablation, which uses radio frequency or lasers to burn and close the superficial veins, so the blood can return to the heart using the deep venous system.
Venous thromboembolisms, or VTEs, are blood clots that form in the deep veins. They primarily affect the legs, and are occur more often after 40. “Aging is one of the most common risk factors for blood clots,” Dr. Lin says. Other causes can include surgery, hip or leg injuries, family history, infection, immobility due to a stroke, a long hospital stay and varicose veins.
Vein clots can cause leg pain and swelling, but sometimes they develop with no symptoms. Even minor clots, though, can be the start of more serious issues. Clots that form deeper in the veins are deep vein thrombosis (DVT). Symptoms include skin that feels hot to the touch and has reddish marks. They can be diagnosed with an ultrasound.
A blood clot can move to the lungs and cause a pulmonary embolism or PE. Symptoms of a pulmonary embolism include sudden shortness of breath, rapid breathing and heart rate, lightheadedness, and pain under the rib cage that worsens with breathing. PEs are usually diagnosed with a computed tomography or CT scan.
DVTs and PEs are life-threatening and require immediate treatment with medication to thin the blood.
Maintaining healthy veins
Good lifestyle habits are essential in preventing vein problems:
- Maintain a healthy weight
- Be physically active
- Don’t smoke
Dr. Lin says, “Regular exercise improves leg strength, vein strength, and overall circulation.” Keep moving as much as you can, especially if you’ve recently had surgery or been injured.
Sitting all day? Get moving instead
Watch our video for nine ideas of how to increase your physical activity at work, at home, or anywhere.