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The Difference Between Varicose Veins and Spider Veins

Have you always thought varicose veins and spider veins are one-in-the same? It is important to know the difference and understand the complications they could result in. The team of vascular and endovascular surgeons at Upstate understand the importance of vein and leg health, and offer patients careful diagnosis and appropriate courses of treatment.

While both varicose veins and spider veins are caused by dysfunctional valves, varicose veins can sometimes progress to a more serious form of venous disease called chronic venous insufficiency (CVI). Spider veins are the more delicate red or blue tracings that can pop up on the skin's surface, and are a minor form of varicose veins. These can precede development of the more serious variation. Sun exposure can make spider veins worse by breaking down collagen under the skin.

Both varicose and spider veins result when the valves designed to keep blood from running backward from the heart to the legs fail or become flabby. This backwash stretches veins and can even slowly leak into ankle and leg tissue, causing swelling.

Varicose veins affect more than 30 million adults aged 18 to 70 in the U.S. They present as gnarled, blue and sometimes painful veins lying under the skin like bumpy snakes. They typically form on legs and feet. The can appear with age, obesity or having to stand for long periods of time. There can be a genetic tendency toward weak vein valves and hormones also play a part, accounting for the increased incidence in women. Puberty, pregnancy and menopause, as well as taking estrogen, progesterone and birth control pills can weaken vein valves and change leg circulation. Varicose veins that pop up during pregnancy usually deflate in three months, although another pregnancy can bring them on again, sometimes to stay.

Not Just a Cosmetic Problem

Varicose veins are not just a cosmetic problem. They can cramp or throb at night. When blood pools into the legs, it can cause the legs to feel heavy and leaden. If clear fluid from the expanded vessels seeps into tissues, it can choke off circulation to the skin, causing an itchy rash or even a painful ulcer.

Varicose veins should be diagnosed and treated by a vein specialist to avoid progression to CVI, while spider veins are generally regarded as a cosmetic issue.  Symptoms of CVI can worsen if left untreated. The treatment of varicose veins is covered by most insurance plans. Check with your individual provider before seeking treatment.

If you have any of the following signs or symptoms you should see a vein specialist to learn more and to determine if you are a candidate for treatment:

• Varicose veins

• Leg heaviness and fatigue

• Leg or ankle swelling

• Restlessness and pains in the legs

• Leg pain, aching or cramping

• Skin changes or rashes

• Ulcers, open wounds or sores

Are your legs ready for summer?

Skirt and shorts lovers rejoice: a minimally-invasive treatment for varicose veins uses radiofrequency ablation (heat) to seal off the affected vein, so blood gets re-routed to other veins. The procedure is covered by most insurance plans and allows for a short recovery and a quick return to everyday activities.

"A patient can improve the quality of her life when her legs feel better," says Palma M. Shaw, MD, FACS, Associate Professor of Surgery, Division of Vascular and Endovascular Surgery at Upstate.

To learn more about varicose veins in women, please call the Women’s Health Network at 315-464-2756 or toll-free at 855-890-UWHN.