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Varicose veins: complications

Lots of symptoms, such as a heavy feeling in the legs, swelling, restless legs, cramps, tingling, aching and itching, have been linked to varicose veins. Some of these symptoms are probably not caused by varicose veins, but may have other causes (such as ageing). However, varicose veins are a problem for two reasons.

  • They look ugly, because the affected veins are just below the skin, and the enlarged and twisted portions are very obvious.
  • The pools of non-circulating blood cause complications.

The main serious complications of varicose veins are outlined below.

Skin damage

Over time, varicose veins will cause damage to the skin, usually in the lower leg. This starts as a discolouration, where the skin looks purple or blue towards the end of the day. The skin may then become dry and itchy. If it gets bad enough, the skin can break down into a ulcer – which is a sore that does not heal up.

Superficial phlebitis

Superficial phlebitis comes on suddenly when a clot forms in one of the superficial veins on the legs. The vein becomes hard, tender and inflamed. This is a recurring problem and can lead to a deep vein thrombosis.

Deep vein thrombosis

Deep vein thrombosis (often referred to as DVT) is  a serious complication in which a clot forms in the deep vein of the leg. This usually causes pain, swelling of the whole leg and difficulty walking. A recent study suggests that patients with varicose veins are five times more likely to get a DVT than patients who do not have varicose veins (Chang SL et al. JAMA 2018;319:807–17). A DVT is a serious medical condition and requires patients to be treated with anticoagulant drugs.

Pulmonary embolism

Pulmonary embolism (PE) is a very serious and sometimes life-threatening complication. It usually happens when a piece of clot breaks off a large DVT (see above) and travels in the circulation to the lungs. This is a very unusual and rare complication of varicose veins.

Written by: Eddie Chaloner
Edited by:
Last updated: Thursday, April 19th 2018


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Fascinating facts

Varicose simply means swollen

Varicose veins are the price we pay for our upright posture; if we still walked on all fours, we probably wouldn't have them

One person in five has varicose veins or is likely to get them

Varicose veins usually develop slowly over 10-20 years

Recent research has found that varicose veins are more common in men than in women

60 000 people in England have hospital treatment for varicose veins every year

Varicose veins are more common in Wales than anywhere else in the world

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