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Varicose veins in pregnancy

We explain why varicose veins are experienced by so many women during pregnancy and what you can do to prevent them
What are varicose veins?

Varicose veins is the name given to the appearance of enlarged, twisted blue veins that many women suffer from during pregnancy. They most commonly develop in the lower calves or on the inner legs between the ankle and top of the thigh, however, they can also occur around the anus (as haemorrhoids or 'piles') or vulva.

During pregnancy varicose veins are largely caused by the extra pressure that your developing baby and expanding uterus places on the network of veins in your lower body, in particular the inferior vena cava which is predominantly responsible for carrying blood from your lower body back to your heart. This extra pressure can somewhat slow the circulation in the lower body and therefore the speed with which veins carry blood back to the heart.

This slight slowing, combined with the increased volume of fluid circulating around your body can make it more likely for blood to pool in your veins and give them the bulging appearance characteristic of this condition.

Elevated levels of the 'pregnancy hormone' progesterone also play a significant role in the development of varicose veins in pregnancy by causing the walls of your blood vessels to relax. This in turn can cause the walls of your veins to thin and widen so when coupled with the extra pressure of your growing baby they take on a bulging appearance.

Varicose veins do tend to worsen as your pregnancy progresses and your baby places extra weight you your lower body.

What are the symptoms?

Typical symptoms of varicose veins include:
  • the appearance of enlarged blue, twisted veins under the skin

  • a feeling of heaviness in the legs

  • swollen legs

  • a creeping or itching feeling around the enlarged veins

  • a dull ache, throbbing or pain in the legs

Who gets them?

You're more likely to suffer with varicose veins if you:
  • Have a family history

  • Are overweight

  • Are carrying a big baby

  • Are expecting more than one baby

How do you prevent varicose veins?

If you suffer with the uncomfortable condition there is little you can do to prevent the development of varicose veins completely. However, there are a number of steps you can take to reduce the likelihood and severity of their appearance. Things you can try include:
  • Maintaining a healthy weight and avoiding excessive weight gain

  • Taking regular exercise to help boost circulation

  • Eating a healthy, balanced diet with plenty of fruit, vegetables and fibre

  • Drinking 8 glasses of water a day

  • Wearing support tights - try putting them on before you get out of bed in the morning

  • Sleeping on your left hand side - try wedging a pillow behind your back to stop you rolling over

  • Spending a little time each day with your legs and feet elevated on a foot stall or cushion

  • Avoid standing for long periods

  • Avoid sitting with your legs crossed

  • Steer clear of high heels and clothes that are tight around the legs, crotch or abdomen area

How can you treat varicose veins?

For most women the varicose veins they develop during pregnancy will start to gradually disappear after their baby is born. However, they are likely to reappear, and become worse during subsequent pregnancies. Although once again they should subside by the time your baby is several months old.

If varicose veins are causing you significant discomfort your doctor may be able to prescribe you with some heavy duty support tights to wear while you are pregnant as they can help prevent or at least lessen their development.

If your varicose veins don't subside after your baby is born and you find their appearance upsetting it is possible to have corrective surgery. However, you're unlikely to be able to get this treatment on the NHS (meaning you'll have to pay for it privately). For this reason if you are set on the idea of corrective surgery it's best to wait until you've completed your family and are sure that you're not going to have any more children as otherwise you run the risk that they will reappear during a subsequent pregnancy.

Are varicose veins harmful?

In the vast majority of cases varicose veins aren't the sign of a more serious medical condition and as such are rarely something to worry about beyond any discomfort they cause. However, if your legs, feet or ankles suddenly become very swollen or painful, you notice any sore lumps near the enlarged vein or the skin over or around the vein begins to bleed you should contact your doctor for further advice.

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