Healthy Living

Varicose Veins: Why We Get Them and What Can Help

Apr. 6, 2017

Nobody wants them, but 40 million adults in the U.S. have them: varicose veins. Many believe those purple, often bulging lines in legs and ankles are an unfortunate, yet normal, part of the aging process.woman's bare legs with varicose veins

Yes, they are more common in older adults, but they aren’t inevitable. UR Medicine Vascular Surgeon Dr. Jennifer Ellis explains what causes varicose veins, how to lower the risk of getting them, and how they’re treated.

Health Matters: How common are varicose veins?

Ellis: Varicose veins and spider veins are very common, affecting about 40 percent of men and 70 percent of women by age 60. Primary risk factors include pregnancy (which is why women have them more often), extended periods of time standing and bad genes. They are very common in teachers, cashiers, and medical professionals because of the amount of time they spend on their feet.

Health Matters: What causes them?

Ellis: A vein is a muscular tube that drains the blood from legs and feet back to the heart. Over time, veins can weaken, stretch and dilate, which can create leaky valves. That’s when they become visible and, if they are not treated, the veins become swollen and achy.

Health Matters: Are there ways to avoid getting varicose veins?

Ellis: An active lifestyle can help prevent them. It’s important to keep active during the work day, especially if you have a job that requires prolonged standing or sitting. Take breaks and walk around to get your leg muscles moving.

If you stand all day, consider wearing compression stockings. They prevent development of varicose veins and manage early symptoms, such as heavy, tired legs, swelling and cramping.

Health Matters: Is crossing your legs at the knee linked to varicose or spider veins?

Ellis: Despite old wives' tales that crossing your legs or wearing high heels contributes to varicose veins, they don’t. It’s not a direct correlation but, if you’re crossing your legs a lot, you’re probably in a sedentary job. As for high heels, some people think that calves don’t flex as much when we wear heels, which is loosely related to varicose veins. I wouldn’t say you can’t cross your legs or wear high heels, just be aware of what you’re doing and for how long.

Health Matters: How are varicose veins treated?

Ellis: There are a variety of treatments available for varicose veins and spider veins. Most of them are done in a doctor’s office and relatively pain free, allowing a quick return to your normal routine. And most health insurance plans cover them.

They include:

  • Sclerotherapy—an injection for spider veins with results that are almost instantaneous.
  • Vein ablation—using tiny electrodes placed at the tip of a catheter that is inserted into the varicose vein. The electrodes heat the walls of the vein and destroy the vein tissue.
  • VenaSeal—an injection of medical adhesive into the malfunctioning vein to seal it off. This technique eliminates the need for compression stockings.
  • Laser treatment—insertion of a tiny fiber into a varicose vein to emit laser energy that destroys the diseased portion of your varicose vein.
  • Compression stockings—elastic stockings that squeeze veins and stop excess blood from flowing backward. They may also relieve pain and swelling.

When it comes to treatment, women tend to seek it more often than men. However, treatment is essential, regardless of gender, because varicose veins may signify a real health risk.


Jennifer Ellis, MD


Jennifer Ellis, M.D., is a vascular surgeon and director of UR Medicine’s Vein Center, located at 140 Canal View Blvd., in Rochester, N.Y.