Varicose veins

Varicose veins are nothing to be ashamed of, even though many people go to great lengths to hide them. In fact, more than 40 million Americans live with the swollen and sometimes painful veins, which most often appear in the legs.

Gravity is to blame for the formation of varicose veins. Blood that circulates to the legs must be pumped uphill to the heart, against the pull of gravity. Veins are equipped with one-way valves to prevent the blood from flowing back down the legs, but when the valves are stretched or damaged, they don't close properly, and the blood slips back down and pools, causing the veins to stretch out and appear blue and puffy.

Women experience varicose veins about four times more often than men, partially because of the rigors of pregnancy and childbirth. In preparation for childbirth a pregnant woman's body releases hormones that weaken the collagen and connective tissues in the pelvis to make the birth process easier. But these hormones can also weaken the collagen and valves in the veins, increasing the likelihood of varicose veins.

Varicose veinsOther common causes of varicose veins include standing for long periods (the pressure exerted against the veins can increase up to ten times when standing), and sitting for long periods without movement, especially with the legs crossed. Genetics and obesity also contribute to the problem.

While some people consider varicose veins unsightly, they do not pose a health risk in most cases, when the affected veins are near the skin surface. Varicose veins that form deep within the leg, however, can lead to more serious complications, such as skin ulcers, phlebitis (inflammation of the vein), and thrombosis (formation of a blood clot). These conditions require immediate medical attention.

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