Varicose veins 


Varicose veins: an animation

Varicose veins are swollen veins that are usually dark blue or purple. This animation explains what causes varicose veins, the symptoms and treatment options.

Media last reviewed: 02/10/2013

Next review due: 02/10/2015

Types of varicose veins

There are several types of varicose veins, such as:

  • trunk varicose veins – these are near to the surface of the skin and are thick and knobbly; they are usually visible, often quite long, and can look unpleasant
  • reticular varicose veins – these are red and are sometimes grouped close together in a network
  • telangiectasia varicose veins – also known as thread veins or spider veins, these are small clusters of blue or red veins that sometimes appear on your face or legs; they are harmless and, unlike trunk varicose veins, do not bulge underneath the surface of the skin

Varicose veins are swollen and enlarged veins – usually blue or dark purple – that usually occur on the legs. They may also be lumpy, bulging or twisted in appearance.

Other symptoms include:

  • aching, heavy and uncomfortable legs
  • swollen feet and ankles
  • muscle cramp in your legs
  • dry skin and colour changes in the lower leg

Read more about the symptoms of varicose veins.

Your GP can diagnose varicose veins based on these symptoms, although further tests may be carried out.

Read more about diagnosing varicose veins.

Why do varicose veins happen?

Varicose veins develop when the small valves inside the veins stop working properly.

In a healthy vein, blood flows smoothly to the heart. The blood is prevented from flowing backwards by a series of tiny valves that open and close to let blood through.

If the valves weaken or are damaged, the blood can flow backwards and collect in the vein, eventually causing it to be swollen and enlarged (varicose).

Certain things can increase your chances of developing varicose veins, such as:

  • pregnancy
  • being overweight
  • old age

Read more about the causes of varicose veins.

Who is affected?

Varicose veins are a common condition, affecting up to 3 in 10 adults. Women are more likely to develop them than men.

Any vein in the body can become varicose, but they most commonly develop in the legs and feet, particularly in the calves. This is because standing and walking puts extra pressure on the veins in the lower body.

Treating varicose veins

For most people, varicose veins don't present a serious health problem. They may have an unpleasant appearance, but should not affect circulation or cause long-term health problems. Most varicose veins don't require any treatment.

If treatment is necessary, your doctor may first recommend up to six months of using compression stockings, taking regular exercise and elevating the affected area when resting.

If your varicose veins are still causing you pain or discomfort – or they cause complications – they can be treated in several ways, the most common being:

  • endothermal ablation – treatment where heat is used to seal affected veins
  • sclerotherapy – this uses special foam to close the veins
  • ligation and stripping – this involves surgery to remove the affected veins

It's unlikely you'll receive treatment on the NHS for cosmetic reasons – you'll have to pay for this privately.

If you do feel you require treatment, it might help if you print out treatment options for varicose veins to discuss with your GP.

Read more about treating varicose veins and complications of varicose veins.

Preventing varicose veins

There is little evidence to suggest you can stop varicose veins getting worse, or completely prevent new ones developing.

However, there are ways to ease symptoms of existing varicose veins, such as:

  • avoiding standing or sitting still for long periods and trying to move around every 30 minutes
  • taking regular breaks throughout the day, raising the legs on pillows while resting to ease discomfort
  • exercising regularly – this can improve circulation and help maintain a healthy weight

Page last reviewed: 02/09/2014

Next review due: 02/09/2016


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The 17 comments posted are personal views. Any information they give has not been checked and may not be accurate.

shechef24 said on 10 February 2014

Since my last post I have have two bleeding varicose the space of 2 months......!doctors keep saying there is no funding for this on nhs but surely this is not cosmetic... Constantly achey and itchy !! Pay into a system that I get nothing out of

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welsh adey said on 15 August 2013

I have this surrounding my left vas, which was discovered when I went for a consultation before my vasectomy, was told it was nothing to worry about, but could affect fertility. due to the surgery I was having, I concluded it wasn't such a bad thing. it does occasionally ache a little, but I don't suffer with it, and due to its location, not many people see it.
if you plan on having kids, get it checked out I'd say.

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jlag said on 01 July 2013

I had varicose veins when I was pregnant in 1995, they disappeared and returned in 1998 on my 2nd pregnancy but much worse. They seemed to disappear again, but when it was hot or I had been standing for a while they appeared. this lasted for a few years and then they became a permanent fixture in one leg, In 2009 I went to the Drs and was refered to hospital and yes they said I could have them done. Wow just like that. Now I have seen worse on people, but hey ho mine were being fixed. 2 months later, 1 groin scar ,1 scar by my knee and several little ones - not noticeable now - the varicose veins were gone. NOT for long, 6 MONTHS I had lovely legs and then they came back, but worse, really thick blue ones! Since seen the consultant 26 June 2013 and he said that can happen, it was no guarantee!! I can have them done again but they could appear on another part of my leg so he advised to wait till I was a bit older. No one in my family has had varicose veins but me.

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dave_r said on 19 June 2013

In 2005 I was 22 and involved in an incident on a building site, where I my legs got stuck between a bar and 500kg. The only injury I had were to solid lumps about the size of my hand just above my knee joint on the back of my leg. They eventually died down, but on my left leg it left the start of a trunk varicose vein. Now I am 30 and it has grown from there to my foot. Yet even though a result of an accident and not hereditary, I am refused help on the nhs. Surely if a lasting effect of an accident the nhs is there to cure my issue? I'm not over weight. It is not hereditary. And I have had it since I was 22.

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Classyteddy said on 05 June 2013

On the 29th May 2013, I had varicose vein surgery. I had the stripping version in both legs and stayed the night. In December 2007, I had the laser version but only on one leg. I found the staff very helpful at all times. It has been very painful as I two bleeds after the operation and my leg is covered in dressings and bandages to help the healing process. The only problem I had was that I don't sleep on my back causing sleepless nights and painful legs. I was also given heparin to stop any blood clots forming as I have had a DVT and PE in the past. I have varicose veins in the family so there is nothing I can do about it.

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ciprian_123 said on 27 February 2013

something about caricose veins i find here


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variveins2012 said on 18 February 2013

I had the veins in my left leg stripped a year ago from the groin to the ankle.Now my leg is constantly painful and the area from the lower leg to my ankle is numb on the outer level (like when your limbs go to sleep when disabled for a long time)

My left knee joint is in constant pain where the vein was taken out and interferes severly with my sleep as the pain is unbearable at night.I have tried pillows and other things between my knees to separate the to stop the pressure.
Has anyone else got these symptoms ??

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wakefield2 said on 09 September 2012

re kathlee86
I discovered I have a varicose vein yesterday and was thinking about getting it looked at because I'm only 28, have a BMI of 19, eat healthily and exercise. However, kathlee86's comment's made me realise that the NHS will do nothing. I believe I have small vessel disease because I also have very cold hands and feet (although both sides, it's generally worse on my right) and had patent ductus and endocarditis as a child and wonder whether this might be connected. Do you have the cold hands and feet kathlee86? I feel for you, because these veins are unsightly and although cosmetic, can really affect even someone who's generally confident's self esteem.

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kathlee86 said on 06 August 2012

i went to the doctors today about my varicose veins and all she did was print out sheets of information, i told her about the itching and throbbing pain i have in my legs every day, not to mention the unsightlyness of them one of which giving me a bulge on the back of my right leg,causing me to live in jeans i also am only 26, and i kept saying to her i really want to get this sorted as they getting worse and worse and again nothing, left feeling that i shouldnt really make another appointment as they not going to do anything if i do? any ideas?anyone?

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coolmaster said on 20 June 2012

My leg ulcer started when i was 22 years old,it progress from having varicose vains in my left leg.i have had ulcers on the inside and outside of my ankle bone of various sizes,i am now 53 years of age and in that time i would say ,i have had 5 years total, of pain free ,ulcer free living.I have had so may opps to strip veins out to stop the ulcers from coming back,all have failed.I have worn compression stocking all the time,looked after my skin with creams,oils to keep the skin from breaking down time after time nothing works. Until the doctors can replace the valves in the veins we will keep suffering the pain .This condition effects all parts of your life and your family life.Its a condition that has stopped me from applying for good jobs,and the cost of foot wear ,you have a 3 layer, 4 layer ,boot layer bandage, try getting some thing on your foot with that lot on.
There is no real help for you such as dis- able parking ,or incapacity benefit when you can not work,there are times i have been in so much pain even after taking pain killers i am crying,i guess the one thing i worry is will i lose my leg.more needs to be done in this area of health care.I just hope someone will come out with something to stop this condtion for thousands of people.

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dasiystar said on 27 June 2011

I have a vein on the back of my left leg since 1998 didnt go docs but my knee has swollen went to docs in 2006 been back few times was told its cosmetic i said but im in alot of pain with it, was given nothing but told to go private as a single mum living on cares allowance im not go much money! last year i was in so much pain hardly slept fot two weeks now my knee is permenantly swollen and the vein has spread down my calf...also would like to teach my 11 year old how to swim as it affects my confidance so much too! I think it terrible that such a painfull condition is only cured it you are rich! This is so wrong!

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ktm_x said on 27 June 2011

Does anyone know if you can get treated in Scotland? I have very bad thread veins on both my upper and lower legs and a large varicose vein on the back of my left knee.

I am only 22 and I am finding this hard to live with. Please don't think that I am just being vain (excuse the pun) but I hate looking at, and anybody seeing my legs. I am in tears nearly every day as I hate them so much.

I am a young Mum with a baby and I can't afford the £400+ private treatments that are offered.

Does anyone have any information for me as I am a bit apprehensive of going to the GP and passed off as a silly little girl wanting free cosmetic work done.

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Linda1971 said on 22 June 2011

Would like to thank User388395 for the advice given. My sister has suffered with varicose veins for 13 years. She has been to see her GP on many occasions and been fobbed off as well, she was also told that it is no longer possible to have them treated on the NHS and advised to wear compression stockings.
She made another appointment with her GP armed with a print out taken from the Charing Cross Hospital's Website advising that this procdure can be carried out by the NHS. Her GP has now referred her to the hospital.
Please do not suffer in silence!

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User388395 said on 13 April 2011

You can get varicose veins treated on the NHS. You need to ask to be referred to the Charing Cross Hospital. They have a specialist varicose vein clinic and they use the latest technology called radiofrequency ablation. This is done under a local anaesthetic.

I know they do this, because I had it done on there yesterday.

Give the following information to your GP and insist that you want to be referred to the varicose vein service at either Charing Cross or St Marys. You have to be insistent, but not rude. They're your legs and getting it treated now saves more expensive complications later.

Referrals to the varicose veins service at Charing Cross Hospital is via Choose and Book or by fax to 020 8383 7564. Referrals to the varicose vein service at St Mary’s Hospital is via Choose and Book or by fax to 020 7886 1894.

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boyoliver said on 24 February 2011

I recently was refused a referal to vascular surgeon for assessment of varicose veins. I have had very large vvs, upper and lower legs for many years and have not bothered GP. However following phlebitis, which i treated myself with ibruprofen jel, and support tights ( We are encouraged to self help by Primary care) ,i sought advise because i was concerned about the possibilty of developing v ulcers in the future ( i am 69 yrs old) However i was advised to seek private treatment. Surely i should be entitiled to an assessment. I thought that messages from the NHS promoted prevention but not it seems for the prevention of varicose ulcers which pose a significant cost to the NHS and quality of life for patients !

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User528465 said on 13 February 2011

I am very disappointed that this site is so out-of- date. I consulted my GP in January because my varicose veins are very painful and was told that it is no longer possible to have them treated on the NHS. She merely gave me a prescription for compression stockings and the names of local private hospitals. I am concerned that such a debilitating condition with potentially serious consequences is no longer treatable on the NHS. I have a family history of varicose veins and thrombosis.

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123John456 said on 22 July 2009

i think i have varicocyle in my scrotem
it has been there for a while but i have never got it checked out
can you tell me if it is something serious and if i should get it checked out?

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