Varicose Veins and Pregnancy

What are varicose veins?

Varicose veins are caused by a weakness in the walls of your veins, or a faulty valve. This can cause blood to pool, or flow in the wrong direction. They are most common on your legs and feet. For most people, they are nothing more than a cosmetic issue – the enlarged, purplish and swollen veins tend to look like more of a problem than they are.

However, varicose veins can rupture – causing excessive bleeding – or lead to heavy bruising or ulcers. In these cases, treatment will be required.

How can I tell if I have varicose veins?

Other than the visual signs, varicose veins can cause your legs to ache or feel heavy, especially after a long day. Other common indicators of varicose veins are spidery vein patterns on the skin, swollen ankles and cramps or restless leg syndrome.

What are the main causes of varicose veins?

Any extra pressure on your vein walls or valves can lead to them being damaged or becoming weaker. Common causes include being overweight and constipation – having to strain on the toilet can cause haemorrhoids, which are simply varicose veins in your rectum. Varicose veins tend to run in families, and trauma that results in injury to the vein walls and valves can also cause them.

The blood in the veins in your legs is already under increased pressure as it is pushing against gravity to return to your heart. That’s why varicose veins are more common in the lower half of your body.

Do varicose veins get worse during pregnancy?

Up to 40% of pregnant women experience varicose veins during and after pregnancy, and there are a few good reasons for this.

Firstly, during pregnancy the volume of blood in your body increases – that’s because you’re supporting two people’s circulations. Also, hormonal changes (especially the increase in progesterone) cause blood vessels to relax. As the baby grows, the expanding uterus places additional pressure on veins in your body.

Last but not least, constipation is a common experience during pregnancy – another reason why you’re more likely to get varicose veins while you’re expecting.

Can you treat varicose veins while pregnant?

For most people, treatment of varicose veins is not recommended during pregnancy or breastfeeding as the medication involved could be risky for your unborn child or be passed to your baby in breast milk. Once you’ve given birth, any varicose veins which formed during pregnancy may well begin to reduce in size as the pressure on your veins decreases again.

How can I prevent varicose veins during pregnancy?

The good news is that there are lots of things you can do during pregnancy to prevent varicose veins. These include promoting good flow by staying active as much as possible and avoiding sitting in one position for too long. Also, try not to cross your legs when sitting down.

It’s believed that moving in water is especially helpful, so make use of the pool at home (if you have one, and it’s not too cold outside) or at your local gym (if it’s open). Staying active will also help you keep your pregnancy weight gain within recommended limits (excess weight gain is also a risk factor) for varicose veins). A healthy diet that includes lots of vitamin C can also help.

Avoid tight clothes and shoes, as these can restrict blood flow. Look for special support hose which applies gradual pressure from your ankles upwards, helping push blood up your body again.

As the main blood vessels in your body run up the right-hand side, try lying on your left side at night.

For more advice on preventing varicose veins, or for treatment options for varicose veins, contact Dr Francois Steyn on 012 993 4161 or 012 993 0911, or at francois@surgeon.co.za