Varicose veins—dark, bulging, sometimes painful veins visible under the skin—are often a symptom of another health condition: venous insufficiency. We know that venous insufficiency is largely responsible for creating varicose veins. Because veins are so strongly linked to the heart, some may think there is a connection between this venous insufficiency and heart disease. But is there actually a link between them?
What Are Varicose Veins
First, let’s consider how varicose veins are formed. These veins appear when vein valves in our legs stop working properly. Our vein valves are responsible for keeping blood circulating throughout our body. This is hardest to accomplish in our legs, where valves must push blood upward against the flow of gravity. If these valves grow tired or damaged, blood starts to pool in the leg, and a varicose vein is formed. Damaged vein valves can lead to more health concerns separate from varicose veins, however. These include:
- Venous eczema: Itchy, blistered, or crusted patches that form on the leg.
- Phlebitis: An inflamed vein, most often a superficial vein.
- Deep vein thrombosis: A blood clot that develops deep in the vein and can potentially travel to the lung.
- Pelvic congestion syndrome: A painful condition caused when varicose veins develop in the lower abdomen.
- Spider veins: These are characterized by thin bursts of visible veins that resemble spider webs or tree branches.
- Venous leg ulcers: These sores are created when veins are irritated due to blood pooling.
What Is Heart Disease
Does poor circulation in the legs indicate poor heart health? The short answer: No, it does not. Varicose veins are formed due to weakened vein valves, which has nothing to do with your current heart health. There is no link between varicose veins and heart disease or arterial disease, or being overweight. What is influenced by heart health, however, is your arteries. And arterial disease shows itself in a number of very different ways. Those with heart or arterial disease experience other symptoms, such as:
- High blood pressure
- Angina, which are chest pains that are caused when your heart isn’t receiving enough oxygen in the blood.
- Heart attacks, which occur when a blood clot blocks blood from flowing through the heart.
- Strokes, which occur when blood is blocked from flowing to the brain.
- Aneurysms, that are caused when blood starts bulging within an artery.
- Claudication, which is pain in the legs when walking due to poor blood flow through the muscles.
- Gangrene, which is caused by body tissue dying due to a lack of blood supply.
As you can see, symptoms of heart disease are a very different experience than symptoms of venous insufficiency. You may still wonder why these two conditions are so different. How can poor vein health not show similar symptoms as poor arterial health, even though they both deal heavily with blood flow? This is a good question. Let’s look a little closer at why these two things are so different.
Arteries vs. Veins
Blood circulates in your body through two types of blood vessels: arteries and veins. Although they’re both associated with blood flow, there are very different health conditions that arise when either arteries or veins are weakened.
When people think about poor circulation, they are most often thinking about arterial disease, or “atherosclerosis.” This is caused by fatty material building up inside your arteries that restricts your blood supply. Many people with peripheral arterial disease experience no symptoms. But some may experience pain in their legs that is most prominent while walking. Those with arterial disease may also develop ulcers on the feet or legs. This could be confused with venous insufficiency, but the pain and ulcers caused by arterial disease do not stem from the same causes.
Meanwhile, varicose veins and other forms of venous insufficiency are entirely linked to vein health—not arterial health. The development of venous insufficiency can be influenced by a number of factors, including genetics or hormonal changes such as those experienced during pregnancy. Extended sitting and a lack of exercise can also influence the weakening of vein valves in the leg. But is poor vein health influenced by arterial disease? Not at all.
Even though there’s no link between varicose veins and heart disease, varicose veins should still be taken seriously. When left untreated, varicose veins have the potential to grow into larger health problems. These problems can range from painful ulcers to potentially deadly blood clots. Just as you would take care of your heart health to prevent a heart attack, you should take care of your vein valves to prevent varicose veins from developing or worsening.
Luckily, preventing and treating varicose veins is not stressful or time-consuming as you may think. It only takes a few small tweaks to your lifestyle to keep your veins healthy. Strengthening the muscles in your legs by taking short, 15-minute walks or by going for a refreshing swim can have a positive effect on your venous health. Drinking plenty of water is great for your veins, too—and has a good impact on your overall health.
Can Venous Insufficiency Affect the Heart?
If you have heart disease or heart failure, you may experience venous insufficiency. However, it doesn’t work the other way. You won’t develop heart problems because you have venous insufficiency. More commonly, the latter is a symptom of heart problems. If you don’t treat underlying heart issues, venous insufficiency can worsen.
While pooling blood in your legs can lead to discomfort, it won’t impact your heart or its function. You may feel a cramping sensation in your legs from the blood pooling. The condition can also present as an achiness, and the veins in your leg could develop a ropey appearance. You may see changes in the skin tone in your legs. But your body adjusts to the excess blood, and any issues won’t travel up to the heart.
Heart issues can impact venous insufficiency, though. If you live with congestive heart failure, the pressure in your veins may result in leg swelling. Sometimes doctors see patients who think they have vein conditions because of the swelling, but it turns out they have heart conditions. Still, in that case, the vein insufficiency didn’t cause the heart problem. It merely became apparent because of the symptoms emerging at the same time.
Standing for extended periods can lead to venous insufficiency. The condition can also be genetic — as can heart disease. Pregnancy may contribute to the development of venous insufficiency as well.
Does Venous Insufficiency Shorten Your Life?
Venous insufficiency is a serious condition that requires treatment as soon as possible. If the condition is left untreated for too long, there is a chance of developing leg ulcers and bleeding. Though having venous insufficiency can alter your life, it usually doesn’t affect it so much that your life shortens.
While venous insufficiency is not immediately life-threatening, there can be severe cases where the condition can evolve into deep vein thrombosis, which is life-threatening and can lead to death if untreated. The sooner you receive treatment for venous insufficiency, the sooner you can get back to living a life pain-free from pressure in your legs.
Specialists can help you develop plans to increase and improve blood flow in the legs. For instance, they may recommend wearing compression socks or being more active. Making lifestyle changes will ultimately help prevent symptoms from occurring again and improve your health. Ensure you live a long life when you take proactive steps toward lifestyle changes to combat venous insufficiency.
The Best Diet for Venous Insufficiency
You can treat venous insufficiency in several ways to reduce symptoms such as achiness and pain. The same diet recommended to improve circulation and decrease vein issues can also combat heart disease and boost cardiovascular health. Suggestions include:
- Reducing red meat consumption: Plant-based diets lead to greater heart health. Red meat can raise the risk of heart disease, and limiting yourself to one or fewer servings per day will help with vein function.
- Adding avocado to your meals: Whenever you eat it, avocado is a winner. It has vitamin E, which can prevent blood clots, and vitamin C, an anti-inflammatory.
- Eating chia seeds: The tiny seeds can decrease bloating, putting less pressure on the legs.
What If You’ve Already Developed Varicose Veins?
There’s no need to worry—treating varicose veins is much easier than you may imagine. Modern treatments are minimally invasive and patients recover quickly. Patients are able to walk immediately after the procedure and enjoy a life without visible, painful veins. Insurance plans will often cover the cost of venous care as well, making vein care cheaper than you may initially think.
If you have concerns about the current state of your venous health, expert help isn’t far away. Although varicose veins are often considered cosmetic issues, they can a telling-tale of overall vein health.
From the very first phone call to our practice and throughout their vein therapy, our patients experience the difference that a team of the best vascular surgeons in Orlando can provide. If you want to learn more, contact us or read our blog for more information!