What Is the Saphenous Vein and How Can It Affect Future Bypass Surgery?

Many people with varicose veins worry that treatment may hurt their chances of receiving quality vein grafting material for future bypass surgeries. This is because the saphenous vein in the leg has long been a secondary source for bypass grafting material. Fortunately, advances in medicine have given physicians more and even better options for these procedures.Photo courtesy of Jessica D. Vega from

To understand saphenous veins and how they affect your future bypass surgery, we’ll look at:


  • What is the saphenous vein
  • Superficial veins versus deep veins
  • Saphenous veins and bypass surgery
  • Why arteries are better than veins for bypass grafting


The progressive and chronic nature of varicose veins can make them difficult to live with. However, the fear of not getting the best possible treatment for coronary bypass surgery may cause some people to avoid varicose vein treatment altogether. Keep reading to see how this is not the case and learn why you should seek varicose vein treatment today!

What is the saphenous vein?

The saphenous vein, also known as the great saphenous vein, is a large, shallow vein in the leg. It helps protect other skin veins from mild increases in pressure that occur in deeper veins. Like other veins in your leg, the saphenous vein can develop into a varicose vein and eventually require treatment. 

The development of a saphenous vein into a varicose vein can have multiple causes, including:

On the other hand, the saphenous vein isn’t absolutely necessary to maintain healthy blood flow in your legs. Think of your saphenous vein as being similar to your appendix. While it's a natural part of your body, it’s easier and more effective to remove a malfunctioning appendix rather than try to fix it. 

The vast majority of blood in your body flows through the deep veins in your legs and eventually flows back to your heart. This means that a saphenous vein that has become a varicose vein makes blood flow less efficiently, but it won't fully prevent blood from working its way from your leg back to your heart again. 

Like an inflamed appendix, a saphenous vein that has become a varicose vein can create many other problems. These can include:

While some of these symptoms are manageable, it’s important to remember that varicose veins are a chronic and progressive condition. This means that your current symptoms won’t disappear and are likely to become worse over time. Seeking treatment sooner than later will prevent symptoms from worsening and greatly improve your quality of life.

Superficial Veins vs. Deep Veins

When learning about varicose veins, you’re likely to come across terms like superficial and deep in order to describe veins. But what do these terms mean? Learning the difference can help you better understand the saphenous vein and the role it plays in your body.

To start, it helps to know that both types of veins are systemic veins. It’s their job to transport oxygen-depleted blood from your body back to your heart where it’s resupplied with oxygen and sent back out into your body again. 

Deep veins are found deep inside your body’s tissue, such as in muscles and along your bones. Muscles near deep veins compress them when flexed, helping to keep blood moving back to your heart. 

The presence of the stiff muscles around these veins helps to keep deep veins from dilating, which makes it easier for one-way valves to fail. This seems to be the reason that deep veins are much less likely to fail to function normally. 

Superficial veins, on the other hand, are located just below the skin. Blood tends to flow more slowly through these shallow veins since they usually lack a nearby muscle to flex and help propel blood back to the heart.  

Also, the skin is much more flexible and allows these veins to dilate more easily which hastens vein failure if the one-way valves are faulty. These are the veins most often associated with varicose veins. They can become thick, swollen, and discolored and may eventually result in external bleeding if damaged.

So what does this mean for you? 90% of the blood in your systemic veins goes through deep veins. A saphenous vein that’s developed into a varicose vein is actually flowing backward past failed valves, but because the process occurs quite slowly your body begins to shift flow around the varicose veins through the remaining abundant supply of normal veins.  

Typically, when varicose veins are present, the body has been bypassing and not using these veins to transport blood through the legs for years. The body never notices when they are gone as the body has long since bypassed them.

Keep in mind that a saphenous vein that has become a varicose vein will progress like any other varicose vein. You’ll need to get treatment for it to prevent symptoms from worsening and developing new ones.

Saphenous Veins and Bypass Surgery

Many varicose vein sufferers worry about the loss of the saphenous vein due to the role it plays in vein grafting for coronary bypass surgery. These vein grafting procedures serve to help redirect blood to avoid congestion within the arteries that pump blood to the heart.

Ideally, the LITA is used for this. Short for left internal thoracic artery, the LITA is inside the wall of your chest and is your most important coronary artery. However, surgeons need more than what the LITA can offer if multiple bypass grafts are required. When this happens, they’ll often choose to use the saphenous vein from your leg.

A surgeon would never use a varicose vein for vein grafting. They’re simply too damaged to be used for such an important procedure. Dr. Douglass, or any physician for that matter, knows the important role they can play in coronary bypass surgeries and would never do anything to jeopardize them as a source for vein grafts.

The saphenous vein isn’t actually the best source of material for bypass grafting. According to a recent study, the radial artery located in the arm provides a better, longer-lasting option than the great saphenous vein. Patients who received a radial artery graft were less likely to experience a heart attack or other negative effects.

Why Arteries Are Better Than Veins for Bypass Grafting

What are arteries, exactly? Unlike veins, which carry low-oxygen blood back to the heart for reoxygenation, arteries carry high-oxygen blood from the heart and distribute it to the rest of the body. Their flexible walls can withstand much higher pressure than veins, as well as changes in blood flow. This makes them less likely to experience clogging or hardening in the future.

According to the recent study, 33% of patients who received a radial artery graft experienced a reduction in heart attack, revascularization, and death than those who received a saphenous vein. More specifically, the risk of heart attacks dropped by 30% and revascularizations fell by 50%.

What’s more, patients were less likely to experience complications who were:

  • Younger than 75 years of age
  • Female
  • Experiencing good kidney function

With all of this in mind, you shouldn’t have to worry about your saphenous vein if you require a bypass graft someday. If it’s already a varicose vein then it would never be considered in the first place. With current advances in medical knowledge, there’s a chance that it wouldn’t be used even if it hasn’t developed into a varicose vein.

Contact us at East Tennessee Vein Clinic to get help for your varicose veins. We treat varicose veins differently by eliminating the entire network of failed veins, not just large visibly bulging veins. You can contact us online, or call us at 865.686.0507 or toll-free at 866.281.VEIN.

“I just want to thank everyone on staff at East TN. Vein Clinic for making me feel so welcome when I came there. You all are so very nice and sweet to everyone.”

- S. H., Cumberland Gap, TN