The medical terms venous reflux, chronic venous insufficiency, and vein disease may sound intimidating, even distressing, at first. These are all terms used to describe a medical condition in which your veins no longer function properly. However, you’ve likely heard of this common problem by a different name: varicose veins.
Interestingly, while there is a close correlation between the two, not everyone with vein disease develops visible varicose veins. So what are the symptoms of venous reflux? How do you know if you have it?
Why varicose veins are a symptom of venous reflux
Varicose veins are enlarged, sometimes discolored, veins that bulge out from the skin. Unlike healthy veins, which are straight, these blood vessels appear twisted and knotted. Although visible on the skin’s surface, they’re caused by a deeper issue: venous reflux.
The word “reflux” means to flow backwards. Venous reflux happens when tiny, one-way valves in the saphenous veins (which help transport blood from your feet to your groin) become damaged and fail to prevent gravity from pulling blood downward. Consequently Instead of a steady upward stream, some blood refluxes and begins to pool inside the vein. This excess blood overflows from the saphenous vein into the smaller, surface veins giving them that characteristic, bulging appearance.
Can you feel venous reflux?
Just like you don’t feel normal blood flow through your veins, you won’t experience any sensation from the reflux itself. In fact, some people with venous reflux experience no symptoms at all.
However, the accumulation of fluid in your leg(s) affects surrounding tissue, which typically results in considerable pain and discomfort. While not everyone experiences the same venous reflux symptoms, some common signs include:
- Leg Pain and Fatigue: Aching, throbbing, or heaviness in your legs, particularly after prolonged periods of standing or sitting. These sensations can be quite distressing and affect daily activities.
- Swelling: Venous reflux can lead to swelling in the legs, ankles, and feet due to the accumulation of fluid in the affected tissues (this is called edema). The swelling may worsen over the course of the day and improve with leg elevation.
- Skin Changes: Venous reflux can cause various skin abnormalities in the affected area including discoloration, dryness, itchiness, and the development of open sores.
How serious is vein disease?
While venous reflux is not an emergency, it is a chronic condition that will get worse over time. If left untreated, vein disease can lead to more severe complications, such as:
- Venous Ulcers: The impaired blood circulation associated with venous reflux can lead to the development of chronic sores called ulcers. They typically form near the ankles and are challenging to heal. Venous ulcers cause pain, restrict mobility, and increase your risk of infection.
- Deep Vein Thrombosis (DVT): Venous reflux can predispose you to the formation of blood clots in the deep veins of your legs. If a blood clot dislodges and travels to the lungs, it can result in a life-threatening condition called pulmonary embolism. Prompt medical attention is crucial in such cases.
- Spontaneous Bleeding: In some instances, the dilated veins near the skin surface may rupture, leading to spontaneous bleeding. While this is a less common complication, it highlights the importance of addressing venous reflux promptly.
How is it diagnosed?
If you have any of the symptoms of venous reflux listed above—especially if you also have relatives with varicose veins, since the condition can be hereditary—you’ll want to make an appointment with a vein specialist.
To make a diagnosis, your doctor will first review your medical history and inquire about your symptoms. It is important to communicate how your symptoms have affected your daily life and any self-care measures you have taken, such as wearing compression stockings or using over-the-counter pain relievers. Additionally, the doctor will conduct a physical examination, examining your legs for varicose veins, swelling, skin changes, and tenderness.
Your doctor will also order a non-invasive test called a venous ultrasound or vein mapping. This test will provide detailed images of your veins and measure the flow of blood through them, confirming the presence of reflux and its severity.
How do you fix venous reflux?
The best treatment for venous reflux is vein surgery. This minimally-invasive procedure closes the damaged saphenous vein so that blood no longer flows through it. Your body then reabsorbs the tissue and naturally reroutes blood flow to nearby, healthy veins. This stops blood from refluxing in your legs, putting an end to your symptoms.
It is best to attain a timely diagnosis and appropriate treatment before your venous reflux has a chance to get worse. While varicose veins are a common sign, vein disease can manifest in other ways, such as pain, heaviness, itching, or swelling in your legs. If you have family members with varicose veins, your risk is increased. Schedule a consultation with a vein specialist to evaluate your symptoms and learn more about your treatment options.