Do Varicose Veins Put You at Higher Risk for Blood Clots?

Varicose veins can be embarrassing to many people, but does this common condition signal a serious health issue?

A new study has sounded some alarms, suggesting that those swollen, twisted veins that you can see just under the skin can increase a person’s risk of potentially deadly blood clots, called deep vein thrombosis (DVT), which can be caused by long periods of inactivity, like too much sitting, extended bed-rest or long trips.

In the study, Taiwanese researchers reviewed the health records of more than 425,000 adults, half of whom had varicose veins. Researchers found that the condition was associated with a 5.3 times increased risk of DVT.  They also found a trend for an increased risk of pulmonary embolisms or PE (clots in the lung) or peripheral artery disease or PAD (narrowing of the leg arteries) among those with varicose veins. All three of these vascular conditions – DVT, PE and PAD -can be dangerous if not treated.

But even the researchers behind this new study conceded that their findings were not able to directly link varicose veins to a higher risk for these conditions. And that’s welcome news, since varicose veins are very common, affecting 23 percent of American adults. You are more at risk for varicose veins if you are older, are female, obese, don’t exercise or have a family history of varicose veins. They can also be more common in pregnancy.

“People need to understand that varicose veins may be a sign of another underlying disorder,” said Libby Watch, M.D., a vascular surgeon at Miami Cardiac & Vascular Institute. “But researchers haven’t shown that if we treat varicose veins, we treat the underlying problem. It is possible that varicose veins and deep venous thrombosis have the same underlying cause. However, treating varicose veins won’t prevent the underlying root cause.”

Doctors often diagnose varicose veins from a physical exam. Sometimes a patient may need additional tests. Compression stockings help relieve the symptoms of varicose veins and can improve circulation. Symptoms include pain, mild swelling of legs and ankles, throbbing or cramping, and achy and itchy legs.

Dr. Watch says that most cases of varicose veins, which reveal the effect of age weakening the blood vessels, are rarely associated with serious health risks. Varicose veins can be a symptom of chronic venous insufficiency, which occurs when the leg veins do not allow blood to travel back to the heart. Problems with valves in the veins can cause the blood to flow in both directions, not just toward the heart.

“The initial standard treatment for varicose veins and superficial venous insufficiency is compression stockings,” said Dr. Watch. “The study doesn’t change that. So wear your stockings.”

For the Taiwanese study, researchers used data from Taiwan’s National Health Insurance program, which included patients enrolled from 2001 to 2013, and monitored through 2014. One problem with the study is that the data does not include information on patients who don’t seek medical care. This means the findings may have included a high number of patients with more severe varicose veins who needed medical attention, the researchers explained.

“Whether the association between varicose veins and DVT is causal or represents a common set of risk factors requires further research,” the researchers concluded.

Dr. Watch says that a lifestyle modifications, including proper nutrition, regular exercise and keeping a healthy weight can help relieve varicose veins and other underlying health issues.

“Weight loss along with compression can decrease the amount of pressure on the lower legs,” she says.

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