Varicose Veins vs Spider Veins

Varicose Veins vs Spider Veins

Steven Kim, MD Blog

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It may seem difficult to tell varicose veins and spider veins apart. They are both forms of venous insufficiency with similar looks and feels, and both are a common disorder that around one in four adults in the United States struggles with. Women, on average, are nearly twice as likely as men to develop them. While varicose veins are typically found on the legs and feet, spider veins show themselves on a much broader area, including the face and chest. Although spider veins are mostly a superficial illness that do not require treatment, varicose veins can be more troublesome, and may cause pain and swelling of affected appendages.

Causes of Varicose and Spider Veins

An illness known as superficial venous insufficiency is the main cause of varicose veins, although they may also appear due to skin trauma or too much exposure to the sun. In healthy veins, small valves open and close to let blood flow to the heart, creating a one-way street and preventing backflow from occurring. For those with damaged veins, or who are afflicted with venous insufficiency, these valves do not work properly, allowing blood to clot. As the pressure builds inside the vein, it bloats and appears to bulge outwards, eventually becoming visible even outside the skin.

What Symptoms do Varicose and Spider Veins Cause?

Because varicose veins are usually visible, they are typically easy to self-diagnose. However, some veins may still contain broken valves but are simply invisible due to their location inside the leg. Spider veins are typically more difficult to find, as they are smaller and less raised than their varicose counterparts. Many people with varicose throbbing or aching, have difficulty using their legs, or feel a burning sensation. Varicose veins are tender, and may also hurt when touched. Spider veins share these same symptoms, although their effects are generally much more mild and are usually harmless. If left untreated, however, both diseases may cause complications such as internal bleeding, blood clots, or skin ulcers.

How do Varicose and Spider Veins Develop?

While obesity and genetics seem to play a role in the development of vein diseases, any activity or occupation that requires the legs or abdomen to work over time increases the chances of getting varicose or spider veins. Most commonly, pregnancy, birth control pills, and hormones all seem to play a part in veins becoming varicose. Sedentary lifestyles also lead to varicosity, as the leg muscles are not as acclimated at pumping blood. One of the largest factors, however, is age. As your body begins to regenerate more slowly and the valves in your veins weaken, they may eventually break and cause varicose or spider veins to appear.

What are the Treatments for Varicose and Spider Veins?

While most cases of spider veins are harmless and do not require a visit to the doctor, many people choose to have them removed for cosmetic reasons. If you suffer from varicose veins and they are causing you pain, however, you should get treatment right away.

Options for curing varicose veins include wearing compression stockings or pantyhose that are designed to encourage the upward flow of blood from your ankles to the rest of your body. Over-the-counter pain medications such as ibuprofen or aspirin can also help temporarily relieve pain and swelling if your varicose veins are causing discomfort.

In more extreme cases, you may need to have your varicose veins removed. Laser therapy is one option, where a thin beam of light shines on the vein to make it disappear. Sclerotherapy injects a solution of salt into the vein to cause it to collapse in on itself, rendering it useless and incapable of holding blood. Veins may also need to be surgically stripped or ligated if other treatment options have failed. Unfortunately, even after having your varicose or spider veins removed, it is possible that other veins will become varicose later, and you may need additional treatments over the course of your life.

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Dr. Steven Kim received his B.A. in biochemistry from Cornell University, then completed his M.S. from Columbia University and his M.D. from the State University of New York Downstate Medical Center. Dr. Kim specializes in the treatment of varicose veins and vein disease. Read his full bio here.