Varicose and smaller spider veins are a common medical condition, affecting an estimated 80 million adults in the U.S.
Spider veins are small enlarged superficial blood vessels that appear red or blue. They commonly occur on the legs, but frequently occur on the face or elsewhere.
These dilated blood vessels may be short, unconnected lines each about the size of a large hair or connected in a matted, “sunburst” pattern. They may also look like a spider web or a tree with branches. Sometimes, they occur in a small area and aren’t very noticeable, or they can cover a large area of skin and be quite unattractive.
Larger dilated blood vessels called varicose veins may be raised above the skin surface. They may occur along with spider veins.
Patients can have pain, ranging from a dull throbbing pain to a burning sensation. The larger vessels are more likely to cause discomfort, although smaller blue veins have been shown to cause pain.
If spider veins are unsightly or uncomfortable, they can be treated by injection of a solution or laser that will cause them to disappear or become much smaller. There is about a 50 – 90 percent chance for a greatly improved appearance.
What causes these blood vessels to become visible?
The cause of spider veins is not completely known. In many cases they seem to run in families. Identical twins can be affected in the same area of the body and to the same extent. The condition rarely occurs as part of an internal disease.
Spider veins appear in both men and women, but more frequently in women. The female hormones may play a role in their development. Puberty, birth control pills, pregnancy or hormone replacement therapy often seem to bring them out. They may also appear after an injury or as a result of wearing tight girdles or hosiery held up with tight rubber bands. Spider veins may also occur in association with large varicose veins.
Spider veins on the nose or the cheeks of fair skinned persons may be related to sun exposure.
Can spider veins be prevented?
Spider veins can’t always be prevented. Wearing support hose may minimize unwanted blood vessels from developing. Keeping one’s weight at a normal level and exercising regularly may also be helpful. Eating a high-fiber diet and wearing low-heeled shoes may also help. Sun protection is important to limit the number of unwanted vessels on the face.
How are unwanted blood vessels on the legs treated?
The injection method, a procedure called sclerotherapy is used to treat unwanted blood vessels. One of several kinds of solutions, called sclerosing solution, is injected with a very fine needle directly into the blood vessel. This procedure has been used for spider veins since the 1930’s and before that for larger veins. The solution irritates the lining of the vessel, causing it to swell and stick together and the blood to thicken. Over a period of weeks, the vessel turns into scar tissue that is absorbed, eventually becoming barely noticeable or invisible.
How successful is sclerotherapy?
After several treatments, most patients can expect a 50 percent to 90 percent improvement. However, fading is gradual, usually over months. Disappearance of spider veins is usually achieved, but similar veins may appear in the same general area.
Are there side effects to spider vein treatments?
Even with a highly experienced physician performing the treatment, there are some possible side effects. They include:
Stinging or pain at the sites of injection, swelling of the ankles or feet or muscle cramps – Some solutions for injection are relatively pain-free. Muscle cramps almost always occur when the injection solution is hypertonic saline. These usually go away within 5 minutes after injection.
Red, raised areas at the sites of injection – These should disappear within a day or so and are like hives.
Brown lines or spots on the skin at the sites of treated blood vessels – Probably made up of a form of iron in the blood, these darkened areas may result when blood escapes from treated veins. These dark areas occur more often in patients who have larger veins treated. In most cases, they disappear within 6 months to a year, but in a small percent of patients they may last longer. Laser treatment may cause skin discoloration.
Development of groups of fine red blood vessels near the sites of injection of larger vessels, especially on the thighs – About a third of patients develop these after leg vein treatments; most disappear by themselves, some go away with additional injection treatment or laser therapy, a few may last.
Small, painful ulcers at treatment sites either immediately or within a few days of injection – These occur when some of the solution escapes into the surrounding skin or enters a tiny artery at the treatment site. These can be successfully treated, but it is necessary to inform the physician of them immediately. Lasers may cause small areas of skin breakdown.
Bruises at the site where the needle went into the skin – These will disappear in a few weeks and are probably related to the thinness of blood vessel walls.
Allergic reactions to certain sclerosing solutions – Although such reactions can be serious, they are extremely rare and can be treated by your dermatologist. Minor reactions can be treated with antihistamines.
Inflammation of treated blood vessels – This is very unusual but when it occurs it is treated with medications such as aspirin, compression, antibiotics or heat.
Lumps in injected vessels, particularly larger ones, may develop – This is coagulated blood, similar to a bruise within the vein, but is not dangerous. The dermatologist may drain the blood out of these areas a few weeks after injection.
Will treated veins recur?
Larger veins may recur even after surgical procedures for your leg vein treatments. Spider veins may also recur after leg vein treatments. It may seem that a previously injected vessel has recurred, when, in fact, a new spider vein has appeared in the same area.