Understanding why varicose veins develop requires a deeper understanding of the makeup of veins in our bodies. It’s a popular misconception to think of all the blood vessels in our bodies as veins, when this is not actually the case. We have two types of blood vessels: veins and arteries, and all of the blood that circulates in the body flows through this network of arteries and veins.

Arteries

Oxygenated blood departs from the heart in the arteries and goes into smaller and smaller branching networks of blood vessels until it reaches the tiny capillaries.

Veins

Then the blood starts to return to the heart from the capillaries into the veins, branching the opposite way into larger and larger vessels until it gets back to the heart.

Therefore, the arteries are taking the blood away from the heart, while the veins are returning the blood to the heart. But besides the direction the blood is traveling, there is another major difference between the arteries and the veins. The arteries are not only generally helped by gravity to pump blood to the extremities, they are also surrounded by a layer of muscle that helps to push the blood along, while the veins lack this reinforcing structure. Therefore, the blood in the veins has to make it back to the heart without extra help to squeeze it along.

So how does blood make it back up from your feet to your heart? Several factors come into play.

  • Blood pressure. The blood that is continually being pumped by the heart through the arteries has a role in pushing the blood forward, but this effect is only minimal once the blood has dispersed to the tiny capillaries.
  • Nearby muscles. Every time your muscles contract, they constrict the passages in the veins. Your calf muscles are extremely important in helping blood from your feet return from the veins. Muscle movements squeeze the veins, helping to move the blood along. (This is why it’s important to move your legs regularly rather than sitting or standing for long periods of time.) However, muscle movements around the veins could technically move the blood backward just as easily if it weren’t for our next factor.
  • One-way valves. This is the key piece of the puzzle. Each vein has a number of one-way valves at varying intervals, and when muscle movements push blood up the vein, it can’t retreat back down once it has passed the one-way valve. This helps to keep blood from pooling or getting backed up. We can be thankful for these amazing valves, because without them, blood would tend to settle in our feet and struggle to make it back up to the heart against the force of gravity.

It is precisely the failure of these valves that is responsible for the development of varicose veins. Once the valves allow backflow of blood, our circulation doesn’t proceed as efficiently as it ought to, and therefore, blood is allowed to pool, stagnate, and create pressure on the veins, causing them to bulge and turning them into varicose veins.

When the veins’ one-way valves fail, we call this Venous Insufficiency or Venous Reflux Disease. Many people are under the misconception that varicose veins are due primarily to a sedentary lifestyle, but this is simply not the case. People who are extremely fit and athletic or in high-activity professions, like construction, can also develop varicose veins. The It would be nice to be able to take a simple pill to prevent our vein valves from ever failing, but it’s not that easy.

Fortunately, though, when it does happen, it’s usually not life threatening and it can easily be treated, bringing lumpy, gnarly varicose veins back to a smooth and fabulous-looking appearance.

When you need varicose treatment or any other kind of vein treatment, our experts are here to help. Count on our vein care doctors to get you on the right path to vein health. Get started by scheduling a free screening today!