How to Keep Varicose Veins in Check

You may not be able to prevent varicose veins, but you can keep them from getting worse.

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Short of going to bed for the rest of your life, there's very little you can do to prevent varicose veins," says vein specialist Nick Morrison, president of the American College of Phlebology. But what you can do, he says, is slow up the process and mitigate complications.

Varicose veins, which affect an estimated 25 million Americans, are often the visible sign of an underlying problem, says Morrison. They arise when veins malfunction, allowing blood that they're supposed to flush toward the heart to instead spill backwards and pool. With time, the stagnant blood may cause veins to balloon. This can lead to a slew of complications, such as swelling, pain, itching, or legs that feel like dead weights. In severe cases, the process can also lead to skin ulcers or even blood clots. "One of the myths is that varicose veins are cosmetic only, and they absolutely are not," explains Morrison.

Gender, genetics, and job put some at a disadvantage, as does aging. In general, women are two to three times as likely as men to get varicose veins, and they're hereditary for about half the people who get them, according to the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute. And occupations that involve prolonged standing make it hard for blood to flow against gravity (flight attendants, hairstylists, and surgeons, beware). So does carrying excess weight, since a heavier frame exerts more pressure on the veins.

While genes and gender can't be helped, certain actions may prevent varicose veins from worsening, says Morrison. His main advice: Ramp up circulation with any kind of regular aerobic exercise. Cycling, running, swimming, and even dancing can improve blood flow. Lifting heavy weights, however, appears to exacerbate matters.

The most important self-help measure, Morrison emphasizes, is wearing compression hose. "People think of them as these old rubber things that are impossible to get on," he says, but they are now lighter-weight and come in scads of styles and colors. Their squeeze helps blood flow more efficiently to the heart and may reduce the bulge. Keeping legs elevated whenever possible may have a similar effect. However, neither, Morrison says, is likely to make the veins disappear.