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Varicose Veins
Joseph A. Florence, MD
Leigh D. Johnson, MD
image BASICS
  • Superficial venous disease causing a permanent dilatation and tortuosity of superficial veins, usually occurring in the legs and feet; caused by systemic weakness in the vein wall and may result from congenitally incomplete valves or valves that have become incompetent
  • Affects legs where reverse flow occurs when dependent
  • Truncal varices involve the great and small saphenous veins; branch varicosities involve the saphenous vein tributaries.
  • Categorized as the following:
    • Uncomplicated (cosmetic)
    • With local symptoms (pain confined to the varices, not diffuse)
    • With local complications (superficial thrombophlebitis, may rupture causing bleeding)
    • Complex varicose disease (diffuse limb pain, swelling, skin changes/ulcer)
  • System(s) affected: cardiovascular; skin
Geriatric Considerations
  • Common; usually valvular degeneration but may be secondary to chronic venous deficiency
  • Elastic support hose and frequent rests with legs elevated rather than ligation and stripping
Pregnancy Considerations
  • Frequent problem
  • Elastic stockings are recommended for those with a history of varicosities or if prolonged standing is involved.
  • Predominant age: middle age
  • Predominant gender: female > male (2:1)
  • National Women's Health Information Center estimates that 50% of women have varicose veins.
  • Varicose veins are caused by venous insufficiency from faulty valves in ≥1 perforator veins in the lower leg, causing secondary incompetence at the saphenofemoral junction (valvular reflux).
  • Valvular dysfunction causing venous reflux and subsequently venous hypertension (HTN)
  • Failed valves allow blood to flow in the reverse direction (away from the heart), from deep to superficial and from proximal to distal veins.
  • Deep thrombophlebitis
  • Increased venous pressure from any cause
  • Congenital valvular incompetence
  • Trauma (consider arteriovenous fistula; listen for bruit)
  • Presumed to be due to a loss in vein wall elasticity with failure of the valve leaflets
  • An increase in venous filling pressure is sufficient to promote varicose remodeling of veins by augmenting wall stress and activating venous endothelial and smooth muscle cells (1).
Autosomal dominant with incomplete penetrance
  • Increasing age
  • Pregnancy, especially multiple pregnancies
  • Prolonged standing
  • Obesity
  • History of phlebitis (postthrombotic syndrome)
  • Family history
  • Female sex
  • Increased height
  • Congenital valvular dysfunction
  • Stasis dermatitis
  • Large varicose veins may lead to skin changes and eventual stasis ulceration.
  • Inspect lower extremities while the patient is standing. Varicose veins in the proximal femoral ring and distal portion of the legs may not be visible when the patient is supine.
  • Varicose veins are the following:
    • Dilated, tortuous, superficial veins, chiefly in the lower extremities
    • Dark purple/blue in color, raised above the surface of the skin
    • Often twisted, bulging, and can look like cords
    • Most commonly found on the posterior/medial lower extremity
  • Edema of the affected limb may be present.
  • Skin changes may include the following:
    • Eczema
    • Hyperpigmentation
    • Lipodermatosclerosis
  • Spider veins (idiopathic telangiectases)
    • Fine intracutaneous angiectasis
    • May be extensive/unsightly
  • Neurologic sensory and motor exam
  • Peripheral arterial vasculature; pulses
  • Musculoskeletal exam for associated rheumatologic/orthopedic issues
  • Nerve root compression
  • Arthritis
  • Peripheral neuritis
  • Telangiectasia: smaller, visible blood vessels that are permanently dilated
  • Deep vein thrombosis
  • Inflammatory liposclerosis
Duplex ultrasound: Noninvasive imaging duplex ultrasound will confirm the etiology, anatomy, and pathophysiology of segmental venous reflux. The severity of both symptoms and signs tends to correlate with the degree of venous reflux, which is identified by duplex ultrasound as retrograde or reversed flow of greater than 0.5 second duration (2).
Diagnostic Procedures/Other
Duplex scanning, venous Doppler study, photoplethysmography, light-reflection rheography, air plethysmography, and other vascular testing should be reserved for patients who have venous symptoms and/or large (>4 mm in diameter) vessels or large numbers of spider telangiectasia indicating venous HTN.
Test Interpretation
A clinical classification illustrating the current physical state is useful in clinical practice (1).
  • 0: no visible or palpable signs of venous disease
  • 1: spider veins or telangiectasias
  • 2: varicose veins
  • 3: edema
  • 4: skin changes (pigmentation, eczema, lipodermatosclerosis, atrophie blanche)
  • 5: healed ulcer
  • 6: active ulcer
  • Conventional wisdom suggests conservative therapy (e.g., elevation, external compression, weight loss) as being helpful; while compression stockings improve the severity of varicose veins, they do not seem to improve quality of life (3)[B].
  • There is insufficient, high-quality evidence to determine whether or not compression stockings are effective as the sole and initial treatment of varicose veins in people without healed or active venous ulceration, or whether any type of stocking is superior to any other type (4)[A].
  • All the current modalities of endoluminal and open surgical treatment have similar short-term outcomes and risks (5)[A].
  • Appropriate surgical treatment has the best longterm outcomes and evidence base (5)[A].
  • Treatment of choice, however, depends on many factors, including local expertise (5)[A].
  • When comparing quality of life, pain relief, and long-term relief, surgery is favored (6)[A].
  • Endovenous laser ablation (EVLA); radiofrequency ablation, foam sclerotherapy, and surgical stripping for great saphenous varicose veins are all efficacious (7)[A].
  • Endovenous ablation (radiofrequency and laser) is at least as effective as surgery in the treatment of great saphenous varicose veins and outcomes remain similar at 2 years (8)[A]; however, ultrasoundguided foam sclerotherapy has insufficient support from available data (7)[A].
  • The ambulatory conservative hemodynamic correction of venous insufficiency method (cure conservatrice et hémodynamique de l'insuffisance veineuse en ambulatoire [CHIVA]) is a less-invasive approach based on venous hemodynamics with deliberate preservation of the superficial venous system. The CHIVA method reduces recurrence of varicose veins and produces fewer side effects than vein stripping (9)[A].
Patients with unsightly varicose veins often seek treatment for cosmetic reasons.

Superficial thrombophlebitis is not an infective condition and does not require antibiotic treatment.
  • Emergency: bleeding from a varicosity that has eroded the skin
  • Urgent: varicosity that has bled and is at risk for bleeding again
  • Soon: ulcer that is progressive/painful despite treatment
  • Routine
    • Active/healed ulcer/progressive skin changes that may benefit from surgery
    • Recurrent superficial thrombophlebitis
    • Troublesome symptoms attributable to varicose veins or patient and provider feel that the extent, site, and size of the varicosities are having a severe impact on quality of life.
  • Apply elastic stockings before lowering legs from the bed.
  • Activity
    • Frequent rest periods with legs elevated
    • If standing is necessary, frequently shift weight from side to side.
    • Appropriate exercise routine as part of conservative treatment
    • Walking regimen after sclerotherapy is important to help promote healing.
    • Never sit with legs hanging down.
  • Physical therapy
  • Surgery
    • Improved quality-adjusted life-years and symptoms compared to conservative management at 2 years (1)[A]
    • Surgery is indicated if there is pain, recurrent phlebitis, or skin changes/ulceration or for cosmetic improvement for severe cases.
    • Minimally invasive techniques include the following:
      • Radiofrequency ablation (RFA): compared with surgery provides a faster return to work; less pain, better short-term quality of life; less bruising and tenderness compared with endovenous laser therapy (1)[A]
      • Endovenous microwave ablation (EMA) is an effective new technique for the treatment of varicose veins and had a more satisfactory clinical outcome than high ligation and stripping (HLS) in the short term (10)[A].
      • EVLA is as effective as conventional surgery (CS) and superior to ultrasound-guided foam sclerotherapy (UGFS), according to occlusion on ultrasound duplex (11)[B].
      • Quality of life improves after treatment in all groups (EVLA, CS, UGFS), significantly (11)[B].
      • There is no significant difference between EVLA and open surgery in patients with great saphenous vein incompetence (12)[A].
  • Sclerotherapy is a simple, safe, and particularly effective for smaller, early varicosities and also for residual veins after surgery (13)[C].
  • Radiotherapy
    • RFA takes longer to perform but has better early outcome than CS in patients with great saphenous varicose veins.
    • Radiofrequency and laser treatments replace “stripping”; however, most varicosities still require phlebectomy/sclerotherapy.
  • No special diet
  • Weight-loss diet is recommended if obesity is a problem.
  • Avoid long periods of standing and crossing legs when sitting.
  • Exercise (walking, running) regularly to improve leg strength and circulation.
  • Maintain an appropriate weight.
  • Wear elastic support stockings.
  • Avoid clothing that constricts legs.
  • Surgery/sclerotherapy may not prevent development of varicosities, and the procedure may need to be repeated in later years.
  • National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, Communications and Public Information Branch, National Institutes of Health, Building 31, Room 41-21, 9000 Rockville Pike, Bethesda, MD 20892; 301-496-4236. http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/
  • JAMA Patient Page| Treatment of Varicose Veins; http://jama.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=1672241
  • Usual course: chronic
  • Favorable with appropriate treatment
  • Surgery has a nonsignificant reduction in the risk of varicose vein recurrence compared with liquid sclerotherapy and endoluminal interventions (6)[A].
  • Increasing disease severity by venous clinical severity score (VCSS) is associated with reductions in quality of life (14)[B].
1. Hamdan A. Management of varicose veins and venous insufficiency. JAMA. 2012;308(24):2612-2621.
2. Coleridge-Smith P, Labropoulos N, Partsch H, et al. Duplex ultrasound investigation of the veins in chronic venous disease of the lower limbs—UIP consensus document. Part I. Basic principles. Eur J Vasc Endovasc Surg. 2006;31(1):83-92.
3. Nandhra S, El-sheikha J, Carradice D, et al. A randomized clinical trial of endovenous laser ablation versus conventional surgery for small saphenous varicose veins. J Vasc Surg. 2015;61(3):741-746.
4. Shingler S, Robertson L, Boghossian S, et al. Compression stockings for the initial treatment of varicose veins in patients without venous ulceration. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2013;(12):CD008819.
5. Wright N, Fitridge R. Varicose veins—natural history, assessment and management. Aust Fam Physician. 2013;42(6):380-384.
6. Kistner RL, Eklof B, Masuda EM. Diagnosis of chronic venous disease of the lower extremities: the “CEAP” classification. Mayo Clin Proc. 1996;71(4):338-345.
7. Nesbitt C, Eifell RK, Coyne P, et al. Endovenous ablation (radiofrequency and laser) and foam sclerotherapy versus conventional surgery for great saphenous vein varices. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2011;(10):CD005624.
8. Sell H, Vikatmaa P, Albäck A, et al. Compression therapy versus surgery in the treatment of patients with varicose veins: a RCT. Eur J Vasc Endovasc Surg. 2014;47(6):670-677.
9. Bellmunt-Montoya S, Escribano JM, Dilme J, et al. CHIVA method for the treatment of chronic venous insufficiency. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2013;(7):CD009648.
10. Yang L, Wang XP, Su WJ, et al. Randomized clinical trial of endovenous microwave ablation combined with high ligation versus conventional surgery for varicose veins. Eur J Vasc Endovasc Surg. 2013;46(4):473-479.
11. Biemans AA, Kockaert M, Akkersdijk GP, et al. Comparing endovenous laser ablation, foam sclerotherapy, and conventional surgery for great saphenous varicose veins. J Vasc Surg. 2013;58(3):727-734.e1.
12. Rasmussen L, Lawaetz M, Bjoern L, et al. Randomized clinical trial comparing endovenous laser ablation and stripping of the great saphenous vein with clinical and duplex outcome after 5 years. J Vasc Surg. 2013;58(2):421-426.
13. Subbarao NT, Aradhya SS, Veerabhadrappa NH. Sclerotherapy in the management of varicose veins and its dermatological complications. Indian J Dermatol Venereol Leprol. 2013;79(3):383-388.
14. Lozano Sánchez FS, Sánchez Nevarez I, González-Porras JR, et al. Quality of life in patients with chronic venous disease: influence of the sociodemographical and clinical factors. Int Angiol. 2013;32(4):433-441.
  • I83.90 Asymptomatic varicose veins of unspecified lower extremity
  • I83.009 Varicose veins of unsp lower extremity w ulcer of unsp site
  • I83.10 Varicose veins of unsp lower extremity with inflammation
Clinical Pearls
  • Long-term safety and efficacy of surgery for the treatment of varicose veins is supported by lowquality evidence. Less-invasive treatments, which are associated with less periprocedural disability and pain, are supported by short-term studies (4)[A].
  • Endovascular treatment of varicose veins is safe and effective and has a rapid recovery (7)[A]. Insufficient evidence exists to prefer sclerotherapy over surgery (6)[A].
  • The efficacy of sclerotherapy is not significantly affected by the choice of sclerosant, dose, formulation (foam vs. liquid), local pressure dressing, or degree and length of compression (6)[A].