Do your legs look different than they used to? Maybe you’re seeing twisted purple and blue veins bulging from your legs. Now you’re wondering if you should be concerned and if there’s anything you can do about your swollen leg veins.

They’re called varicose veins, and they are very common in older adults – and usually aren’t serious. But if left untreated, they can cause a lot of discomfort and lead to more serious medical problems, such as ulcers and blood clots. Below, we cover what causes varicose veins and signs that you may need treatment for your varicose veins.

How to know if you have a varicose vein: It bulges out from your skin

A varicose vein happens when one of your veins, usually one in your leg, is swollen, twisted and discolored. This can occur if problems with your veins are preventing blood from flowing properly.

Any vein close to the skin can become varicosed, but you’re more likely to have varicose veins on your legs or ankles. This is because there’s added pressure on the veins in your lower body when you stand or move around.

What varicose veins look like

Varicose veins are enlarged veins that bulge out from the surface of your skin. They are usually dark purple or blue but can also be red. They often resemble cords or ropes.

Varicose veins are different from spider veins

You may have visible veins on your legs that aren’t varicose veins – they may be spider veins instead. Both varicose veins and spider veins are the result of vein damage, but spider veins are milder and don’t generally cause pain or other health problems.

So how do you tell the difference between varicose veins and spider veins? Spider veins look like spider webs or branches and can be red, blue, purple or green. They’re much smaller and fainter than varicose veins and don’t bulge from the surface of the skin.

If you’re wondering if spider veins can turn into varicose veins, the answer is no. Spider veins form in small veins close to your skin’s surface. Varicose veins form in veins that are deeper in your body.

What causes varicose veins?

Varicose veins are a sign that the walls or valves in your legs are weakened or damaged. Damage to your leg veins is often the result of poor circulation, meaning your leg veins are having a hard time pushing blood back up to your heart. Instead, blood collects in your legs, increasing the pressure inside your leg veins.

The higher blood pressure inside your veins causes them to stretch – this weakens the walls of your veins and damages the valves. Over time, the increased pressure inside your veins may cause them to become enlarged and twisted varicose veins.

Varicose vein symptoms: They usually get worse over time

Varicose veins may not cause any symptoms, especially in the beginning. But without treatment, varicose veins can become painful and lead to more serious problems. Here’s what you should know about varicose vein symptoms:

Varicose vein pain can be mild or significant

What varicose veins feel like is different for everyone. It’s possible that you may experience one or more of the following with your varicose veins:

  • No feeling of pain or discomfort
  • An achy or heavy feeling in your legs
  • Burning, throbbing and muscle cramping in your lower legs
  • An itchy feeling around one or more of your veins

One thing to know about varicose vein leg pain is that a vein’s size isn’t related to how much discomfort it causes. You can have large varicose veins that you can hardly feel, and you can have small varicose veins that are very uncomfortable. There are ways to treat painful varicose veins, so make an appointment with a vein specialist if you need relief.

Varicose veins can cause more symptoms as they get worse

As varicose veins progress, you’ll start to see more symptoms.

  • Skin discoloration: If you have more advanced varicose veins, the surrounding skin may look red, thickened or dark brown. The darkened area is where blood has pooled as a result of damage to a vein wall.
  • Varicose vein bleeding: Varicose veins may bleed, especially if they are close to the surface and the skin is thin. Often the skin covering varicose veins is thin because of swelling in your vein or leg.
  • Swelling and inflammation: If you have varicose veins, you may also have swollen ankles or feet. This can be a sign that your varicose veins are affecting blood circulation, and blood is collecting in your legs.
  • Open sores: Ulcers or open sores can form on the skin near varicose veins, especially on your ankles. Ulcers are also a sign of poor blood flow.

If you start seeing any of the above symptoms, make an appointment with a vein specialist. There are treatments that can help with your symptoms and keep your varicose veins from causing more serious complications.

Are varicose veins dangerous? Some complications from untreated varicose veins can be serious

Varicose veins usually aren’t dangerous, and they don’t increase your chance of heart disease or cardiac problems. However, it’s possible for untreated varicose veins to develop serious complications.

Reduced blood flow can result in other vein problems

Varicose veins can be an early sign of a condition called chronic venous insufficiency (CVI). If you have CVI, your blood follows the path of gravity and pools in your ankles and feet, making it more likely you’ll develop open sores on your legs or feet.

Rarely varicose veins cause dangerous blood clots

Older varicose veins can sometimes cause blood clots in the large veins in your thigh or calf, causing deep vein thrombosis; or in your lungs, causing a pulmonary embolism.

These blood clots can be serious. So call 911 if you have symptoms such as extreme pain and swelling, changes to the color or texture of the surrounding skin, shortness of breath, bloody mucus, dizziness or chest pain.

Get prompt medical care if you experience:

  • Sudden swelling and pain: If your leg suddenly becomes swollen and painful, it might mean you have a blood clot in a deep vein, which can be serious.
  • A tender lump on your leg: This could be a clot or inflammation in a vein just under the skin, which is usually not dangerous but may need treatment.
  • Open sores on your legs or feet: Talk to your doctor if you develop an open sore (ulcer) on your leg or foot, especially if it becomes tender and swollen or you have other signs of an infection, such as a fever.
  • Dizziness or numbness: If you are experiencing symptoms of circulation problems – dizziness, numbness, tingling or stinging in the limbs – call your doctor immediately.

Varicose vein risk factors: Some people are more likely to get varicose veins

Varicose veins are incredibly common – in fact, about 20% of adults have them. Still, there are certain factors that can make it more likely that you’ll get them.

Being female (or assigned female at birth)

Women are more likely to develop varicose veins, and this is partly due to the hormonal changes that happen during menstruation, pregnancy and menopause. These hormone changes can relax blood vessel walls and change how your valves work. It’s also possible that hormone replacement therapy and birth control pills may increase your chance of varicose veins.

Getting older

As you age, it’s normal for your veins to lose elasticity and for the valves to become less effective at controlling the flow of blood in your veins. So, it’s more likely for blood to collect in your legs.


Being pregnant can affect blood flow, particularly in your legs and feet, making varicose veins more likely. You may be more likely to get varicose veins during pregnancy if you’ve been pregnant before.

There is also a larger amount of blood in your body when pregnant. The increase in blood volume helps your baby grow but can also increase the size of your leg veins. If you have varicose veins during pregnancy, they’ll likely go away or get better as you recover from giving birth.

Being overweight

Having extra body weight increases the pressure on your veins. Plus, you may have lower muscle mass, which means less support for the veins in your legs.


Varicose veins tend to run in families. Studies show that if one or both parents have them, you’re much more likely to have them too. You can inherit genes that make your vein walls weaker or your valves leakier. Your genes may also make you taller or heavier which can put more pressure on your veins.

Prolonged sitting or standing

Sitting or standing for a long time makes it harder for your body to move the blood from your legs up to the heart. Because of this, blood can pool in your legs and feet, increasing the pressure in your veins and making it more likely you’ll have varicose veins. And if you have varicose veins, they’re more likely to be painful after prolonged standing or sitting.

How to prevent varicose veins or stop them from getting worse

Behaviors and activities that help improve blood flow and muscle tone may reduce your risk of developing varicose veins and stop them from getting worse. Here are things you can try:

  • Moving your legs: When you move your legs, it helps the blood flow through your veins so try to change your position frequently. If you’ve been sitting for a while, get up and walk around. If you’ve been standing for a while, do some leg stretches or recline in a chair or bed with your legs above your heart.
  • Exercising more: Getting exercise is one of the best ways to improve blood flow in your legs and throughout your body. Walking and yoga are great exercises to start.
  • Losing weight if you’re overweight: Losing weight can ease the pressure on your veins and improve blood circulation.
  • Using compression socks or hosiery: It’s possible that wearing compression socks may prevent varicose veins. You can buy compression socks at retail stores and online. If these options don’t work for you, ask your doctor about prescription strength compression socks.
  • Eating healthy foods: You can support vein health by eating a diet rich in omega 3 fatty acids, antioxidants and essential nutrients like fiber, vitamin B3, vitamin C and vitamin E. Also try to drink lots of water and limit the amount of salt in your food.

Get help for your varicose veins

Varicose veins are usually harmless, but without treatment, they can sometimes become dangerous.

If your varicose veins aren’t causing other symptoms, start using home remedies for varicose veins – making lifestyle changes may be enough to keep them from getting worse.

If you have swollen veins that are causing symptoms, schedule an appointment at one of our vein screening locations in Minnesota and western Wisconsin.

Our expert staff will evaluate your veins and discuss whether varicose vein treatment makes sense for you. Varicose vein treatment does not require a lot of recovery time – you won’t need to take time off of work.

Plus, varicose vein treatment is usually covered by insurance when they’re causing symptoms like leg pain and swelling that affect the quality of your life.