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Are Varicose Veins Dangerous?

Varicose veins are embarrassing for many people who long for the days when their legs were smooth and didn’t resemble a roadmap with those ropey, bluish veins on the surface. For others, the top complaint about varicose veins isn’t how their legs look but how their legs feel. Symptoms of aching, swelling, pain, heaviness, throbbing, or restless legs can not only cause a good deal of discomfort, but can also restrict normal activities.

If you have varicose veins, you may find yourself in either or both of the groups above as you cope with the appearance of varicose veins and/or the uncomfortable symptoms they so frequently cause.

Beyond these common complaints, many people also wonder if there’s something more to varicose veins, something that goes deeper beyond the surface of the legs or their symptoms that they should be concerned about. Namely, are varicose veins dangerous? Could they be life-threatening?

The short answer is, “Not usually.” However, for approximately 10% of patients, complications from untreated varicose veins can cause potentially dangerous and, in some cases, life-threatening medical issues.

Clotting, Bleeding, And Skin Changes

Deep Vein Thrombosis Clotting

The most serious condition that can arise from untreated varicose veins is Deep Vein Thrombosis (DVT). When clots develop deeper within the veins, the leg can become red, painful, and warm to the touch. Swelling often extends above the knee. Typically, patients exhibiting DVT initially feel a “pulling” sensation in the calf, which stems from the blood clot.

DVT is a serious medical condition that requires immediate medical treatment to reduce the risk that part or all of the blood clot could break off and travel to other parts of the body, including the lungs. This could result in a life-threatening condition called pulmonary embolism.

Superficial Thrombophlebitis Clotting

While DVT is clotting within the deep venous system, clots can also form in the superficial veins of the legs, just below the surface of the skin. When pooled blood inside these inflamed varicose veins forms a clot, it creates a hard, red, warm and tender-to-the-touch lump called a “thrombus.”

Superficial thrombophlebitis can be extremely painful, as one young mom discovered during her third pregnancy. While the pain can be alarming, in most cases the clots are confined to the superficial veins of the skin and are not dangerous. However, this must be determined by a vein specialist. Superficial thrombophlebitis can be recurring, and any clots extending to the deep venous system are potentially too dangerous to leave untreated.

Spontaneous Bleeding

When a varicose vein close to the surface of the skin is cut or nicked, the amount of blood that comes out can be quite alarming. When the skin over the leg veins becomes thin, varicose veins can easily rupture and bleed. This most commonly happens after bathing, but even bedding can provide enough friction to cause a varicose vein to bleed spontaneously.

While this bleeding is understandably worrisome, spontaneous bleeding is painless and is not life-threatening. To stop the bleeding, patients should elevate the leg above heart level and apply direct pressure with a cloth before cleaning and bandaging the area. Any episode of heavy bleeding should also be evaluated by a vein specialist.

Skin Changes & Ulcers

Due to a lack of adequate blood supply thanks to varicose veins, skin tissue in the legs may become oxygen-starved and degrade. This may result in a rash, or dry, itchy skin known as varicose eczema.

In addition, long-term inflammation and lack of oxygen in the skin tissue around varicose veins can cause the skin around the ankles to become discolored and hardened and discolored. When the skin becomes dark or discolored, it’s referred to as hyperpigmentation.

When the skin and the fat under the skin have been inflamed for years, particularly around the ankles, the tissues become hardened and dark yellow, which is referred to as lipodermatosclerosis. A condition called panniculitis is similar to lipodermatosclerosis, but it’s when the skin is sore and inflamed around the ankles rather than being hardened and yellow. Each of these conditions should be evaluated by a vein specialist.

Skin Ulcers — End Stage Vein Disease

Finally, skin ulcers can occur when untreated varicose veins have caused chronic inflammation and pressure within the vein, causing white blood cells to migrate into the skin, usually on the inside of the ankle.

At first, the skin gradually darkens and thins, and ultimately an ulcer develops. This is considered end-stage vein disease, meaning the worst case scenario of untreated severe venous insufficiency. Venous ulcers are usually extremely painful, unsightly, and they typically affect one’s mobility and quality of life. Ulcers can also become easily infected, requiring diligent antibiotic treatment.

These venous leg ulcers can take months to heal and they tend to recur if the underlying venous insufficiency is not treated. In severe cases, venous ulcers can cause necrosis, or death of the skin tissue.

While the extent of and symptoms from varicose veins can range from mild to extreme, those who suffer from any noticeable degree of varicose veins should consult with a vein specialist. If neglected, varicose veins can have serious, sometimes dangerous implications for your health.

If these complications from untreated varicose veins are alarming, you should know that the majority of these complications are preventable with early proper diagnosis and treatment.

There are many options today for treating diseased veins, and most procedures are minimally-invasive and are performed in less than an hour in a doctor’s office. It’s important to note that varicose veins typically worsen over time and do not heal on their own. If you’re concerned that your varicose veins may indicate a more serious medical problem or your symptoms are worsening, consult with a vein specialist without further delay.

At East Tennessee Vein Clinic, we help many patients get rid of their varicose veins so they don’t have to worry about developing more serious medical conditions like blood clots or skin ulcers.

At East Tennessee Vein Clinic, we help patients of all ages get rid of their varicose veins so they don’t have to suffer from symptoms such as swelling, aching, throbbing, heaviness, or even restless legs. When our patients learn that today’s advanced treatments are quick and require little to no down time, plus are typically covered by insurance, they’re glad they didn’t delay treatment any longer.

As the first physician dedicated solely to the treatment of vein disease in Tennessee, Dr. Douglass and East Tennessee Vein Clinic leads the region in experience and expertise of varicose veins. We treat veins differently than other clinics precisely because of our dedication to treating the root cause and full extent of each patient’s vein disease.

Visit us online at East Tennessee Vein Clinic, or call 866-281-VEIN, or request an appointment online today. We are offering free vein screenings through June. Please mention free screenings when making your appointment.

Love Dr. Douglass and entire staff. My favorite part is that K-Love 88.3 is always playing. I have referred several friends!

- S. W., Knoxville, TN